Fallon health report inconclusive on pesticide risk

RENO, Nev. (AP) -- A federal report prompted by a childhood leukemia cluster is again warning Fallon residents not to drink or cook with the town's arsenic-tainted tap water because it's a public health threat.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry report said current exposures to crop-dusting probably are not a health threat nor are pollutants at the Fallon Naval Air Station, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported in Saturday's editions.

The federal agency said pollutants from the Fallon Naval Air Station, including jet fuel, stay on the base and do not present a "past, current or future public heath hazard" to Churchill County residents.

The report reached no conclusions about past pesticide use in Churchill County because few records exist, the newspaper said.

The conclusions were part of a federal health assessment of Fallon, where a leukemia epidemic sickened 16 children, killing three of them. The first case in the cluster was diagnosed in 1997 and the last patient, a 3-year-old boy, was diagnosed a year ago.

Fallon is scheduled to have a treatment plant in operation next year, which will reduce the arsenic levels in municipal water from 10 times the federal heath standard to below the standard of 10 parts per billion. Arsenic has not been tied to any of the leukemia cases.

Federal agencies announced their preliminary conclusions in February and on Friday the ATSDR released final reports for public comment.

Critics of the probe said the agency's reassurances are worthless because the scientists reached their conclusions after merely reviewing easily available reports, most of which were generated by the alleged polluters.

"It's just more smoke and mirrors," said Floyd Sands, a former Fallon resident whose daughter, Stephanie, 21, died of leukemia in 2001. "The state health people and the federal agencies predicted failure from the first day of the investigation and now they are delivering on that prediction."

ATSDR officials said scientists followed all standard procedures and protocols and investigated in good faith. The 18-month probe failed to find an environmental cause of the epidemic, but scientists discovered that Fallon residents have very high levels of two metals arsenic and tungsten in their urine.

Arsenic causes some cancers but is not linked to leukemia. Tungsten is not a known cancer trigger, but little research has been done on its toxic properties. Both are naturally-occurring minerals, but Churchill County also is home to a tungsten smelter.

Federal officials said the main Fallon probe is complete, but other research continues.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that federal scientists look at heavy metals and their relationship to people with genetic predispositions to cancer. The CDC has also nominated tungsten as a subject for study by other agencies.

Mark Witten, an Arizona toxicologist not affiliated with the federal probe, also is exploring links between tungsten and leukemia. He has said the metal remains a prime suspect, possibly in conjunction with other pollutants, in the leukemia clusters in Fallon; Sierra Vista, Ariz.; and in suspected leukemia clusters in California and Kansas.

Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., also secured funds for further DNA studies related to the Fallon cancer cluster. Those studies are expected to be done at the University of Nevada, Reno.

In addition, Reid said he is working on getting donations of bottled water for Fallon's schools so that the town's 4,800 students won't have to drink arsenic-tainted water in the months before the treatment plant goes on line.

ATSDR officials said their role in the Fallon investigation is over unless new evidence comes to light or other agencies request their help.


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