Nevada health officials are investigating seven suspected cases of childhood leukemia in Fallon, a rural community of 8,280 south of Reno.
The seven cases appeared over the past four months in children ranging from 3 to 18 years of age.
Randall Todd, the state's chief health officer, says the first step will be to confirm the cases. The state Health Division opens its investigation this week.
''Our plan of attack is to verify the diagnoses, then interview the families, if they are willing to talk,'' Todd said. Health officials are looking for a common link among the children, he added.
''Clearly, if confirmed, that number of cases over that short of a time period is an increase in leukemia,'' Todd said.
No one knows what causes childhood leukemia. Suspected triggers include volatile organic compounds, such as benzene, solvents and fossil fuels, electromagnetic fields or radiation exposure.
If the leukemias are confirmed, Fallon's water supply will be one of the first sources checked. Officials also need to know how long parents have lived in the community, Todd said.
However, the cause of the leukemias may never be found. ''With cancer cases, even if there is a cluster, we don't always find out why,'' he said.
Assemblywoman Marcia De Braga, D-Fallon, requested the investigation after she heard about four cases. ''Then there was five, and then six,'' she said.
One of the first questions begging for an answer is how long the families have lived in Fallon, she said.
State health officials are puzzled about not seeing leukemias in children for years and then all of a sudden seeing up to seven cases, Todd said.
Last week, in an effort to find medical clues, Todd tracked down the scientific studies of childhood leukemias in Woburn, Mass., the basis for the book and the film, ''A Civil Action.'' The Massachusetts case is associated with mothers drinking water from two wells containing several contaminants while they were pregnant.