Looking for Answers in a Town Known for Leukemia

Tungsten is another inscrutable piece of Fallon’s cancer puzzle. Late in 2002, the CDC announced that 68 percent of study participants had high levels of tungsten in their urine. Investigators met first with cluster families to review results. There was no sign, Braccini recalled, that his son Jeremy was exposed to jet fuel, but some numbers stood out. Jeremy had above average DDE, a byproduct of DDT. He had twice as much arsenic as the average American adult. He had 60 times the tungsten. “Once I saw that,” Braccini said, “it hurt me to put my son in the bathtub.”

The numbers surprised investigators, who had not considered tungsten a suspect. Little is known about the metal’s toxicology, and it was even unclear where the tungsten had come from. Braccini believed he knew. In the late 1990s, he worked for Kennametal, a firm that refines tungsten 10 miles north of Fallon and mills it at a plant in town, next to an elementary school. The Reno Gazette-Journal revealed that until 1990, the state exempted Kennametal from the Clean Air Act, allowing it to burn waste in the open air.

But investigators avoided mention of Kennametal when they presented the results to the public. Ralph Seiler of the USGS insisted that tungsten, like arsenic, occurs naturally in Fallon’s aquifers. To be sure, the CDC gathered urine samples from residents in three Nevada towns without tungsten mills and found that all had tungsten levels above the national average. The agency concluded, “Exposure to tungsten in Churchill County does not appear to be unique.” The report did not mention the study’s most striking result: Fallon children had two to four times as much tungsten as children in other towns. The CDC nominated tungsten to the National Toxicology Program for further study; the metal is still awaiting analysis.

Investigators had not found the cause of the cluster—both sick and healthy individuals exhibited tungsten—but they had, parents believed, found reason for concern. Not everyone agreed. A February 2003 editorial by the Lahontan Valley News read the lack of proof as permission to put the issue to rest: “It is reassuring to know nothing in the environment is an acute health hazard.” When Todd recommended that residents drink bottled water until a water treatment plant was built, Fallon’s mayor, Ken Tedford, dismissed the advice as alarmist.

Tedford’s reaction departed from his earlier handling of the cluster. “If I was moving my family to Fallon,” he had said at one public meeting, “I would want to know that this community addressed the problem—it didn’t deny it was there—and it helped those families that were suffering.” As time passed, however, he became less responsive to parents’ questions and dismissive of research beyond the official investigation. “I would tell the mayor that we needed to promote more research so people could make the decision to live here on their own terms, but he didn’t want anything with leukemia tied in with the town,” Brenda Gross told me. She believed his reasons were economic. Between 1999 and 2002, Fallon home values fell 15 percent. The Navy base allowed sailors’ families to remain at their former bases until the investigation was complete. Business owners bemoaned the situation; an auto dealer blamed his 40 percent revenue loss on “the new image of Fallon.”

When I asked parents if they felt supported by the community, some made an important distinction: “The community really looked at our children as their children,” Carinsa Phelan, whose daughter survived leukemia, told me. “But there was not as much support in finding out what was going on, because these are big companies in Fallon. It was like, ‘Yes, I’m sorry your children are sick, but this is our livelihood.’ ” Braccini said he sometimes felt “blamed for the downfall of this community.” Once, at the hospital, waiting for his son’s blood test results, he overheard a lab technician say that the cluster families “brought the cancer with them” to Fallon. “ ‘My son was conceived, born, and raised here,’ ” Braccini recalled saying. “ ‘Is that not good enough for you?’ They just stared back at me. People were polite, but it was a phony kind of polite. I realized the general public knew only a small amount of what transpired, so you felt alone in what you knew.”

In 2003, FIST members met regularly to discuss strategy. Braccini and Gross wanted to recruit scientists to do better environmental sampling and investigate hypotheses they believed state and federal agencies neglected. Though Senator Reid offered to raise funds for more research, parents found little support otherwise. Their numbers dwindled as families moved away and time passed without new diagnoses.

Officials declared the investigation closed in 2004. “As long as parents stayed involved, someone somewhere would try to keep the research going,” Gross said. But she worried that scientists would refuse to work with FIST. Two parents had filed wrongful death suits against Kennametal and the city. “I tried to tell families that we had to stay open-minded if we wanted to get any research done. You could tell that some were looking for information to blame someone with.” A father began to withhold findings due to confidentiality agreements with his lawyer. Gross didn’t blame him; through subpoena, the case would likely uncover corporate documents inaccessible to the public. She also sensed a different desperation in those who sued: “They lost their children. Mine lived.”

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Sierra Crane-Murdoch is a freelance journalist and contributing editor for High Country News.

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