Investigation needed of link between lights, cancer cluster |

Investigation needed of link between lights, cancer cluster

Now that antiquated light fixtures leaking a known carcinogen have been discovered in Fallon’s schools, all kinds of questions are flying around the community savaged by a notorious cancer cluster that afflicted 17 children, including three who died.

Is this the smoking gun that has eluded an army of scientists who for the past six years have been searching in vain for the answer to one nagging question: Why Fallon?

Although the Department of Health and Human Services Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which extensively investigated the Fallon leukemia cluster, lists polychlorinated biphenyl, or “PCBs,” as a cause of leukemia in animals, it is too soon – much too soon – to pin the disease on the leaky lights in Churchill County schools.

No one knows how many lights have leaked the black, oily substance since it was pointed out to school officials as a possible health risk as long ago as 1985, or the extent of any exposures to students or school district staff.

Still, enough questions have surfaced since a custodian was exposed to PCBs last week to warrant a full-scale investigation by the ATSDR, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others involved in the leukemia-cluster inquiry. The citizens of Fallon, and especially the families of the victims, deserve nothing less. The investigation needs to identify who was exposed and what, if anything, those people need to do now.

While the medical ramifications of PCBs in Fallon’s schools are of chief concern, the investigation needs to delve further – much further – into what can only be described as an unbelievable and unimaginable situation.

If the claims of a school electrician are true, that school district officials were verbally notified of the dangerous light fixtures 21 years ago and were notified again in writing in 1998, why wasn’t decisive action taken at the time?

It’s hard to imagine putting the cost of replacing hazardous fixtures ahead the safety of those who entered Fallon’s school buildings. Did they? If so, someone needs to be held accountable. That said, even though budget shortfalls are never an excuse to compromise public safety, the reality is, it sometimes happens.

Therein lie the risks of pinching pennies when it comes to school funding.

A comprehensive investigation must also address environmental issues. For example, how many light fixtures were found leaking PCBs, and how and where were they disposed of? Do they need to be recovered, and if so, at whose expense? Hopefully not by burying them in a playground, as was done at a school district in Oregon.

These questions need to be answered to avoid any ongoing danger to people or the environment.

For the good of the community, any study that is about to take place must be not only thorough but also transparent. Toward that end, the school district has wisely chosen to post updated information on the PCB issue on its Web site (

If a cover-up has taken place in the past – as some insiders suggest that it has – it must end now so we can safely move forward with the task of raising and educating our kids.

– From the Lahontan Valley News