The Pain of Maryvale

How the state of Arizona went soft on polluters and mistreated the victims of the Maryvale cancer cluster

"Forget."
Instead, Pauline became active in her Catholic parish--the parish where St. Vincent de Paul elementary school was located. She remains active in parish work today.

Never once, Pauline says, did anyone tell her of Maryvale's "cancer cluster" problem, of Sister Joyce's suspicion that there was an environmental link to the leukemia or of the nun's futile struggle to get the health department to conduct a meaningful investigation.

"The sisters must have kept it very quiet," she says.
The priests now tell her to forgive. She tries.

TCE was first detected in a Maryvale drinking-water pipe at 59th Avenue and Indian School Road in February 1981. But the city of Phoenix did not test for TCE in Maryvale drinking-water wells until a year and five months after the first detection, records show.

The city then shut two wells at 38th Avenue and Earll Drive (near the Johnson and Guzman homes) because TCE was present at levels almost six times the health standard that had recently been imposed by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Since at least 1987, the city has tried to protect itself from lawsuits that might arise from the Maryvale wells.

In sworn depositions, city officials have explained the 17-month delay between finding TCE in the Maryvale water line and testing drinking-water wells by saying, essentially, that they don't recall why they didn't test immediately.

Following news reports of the Maryvale leukemia cluster, city officials noted that west-siders were served a combination of canal water and well water. Sometimes well water was not used at all. What's more, the city asserted, the underground piping system was too complicated to figure out who got contaminated water. Therefore, officials said, it was impossible to tell which Maryvale homes got the TCE-contaminated water, how long they got contaminated water and in what amounts.

The city also huddled with the state health department. The result of the huddle was, again, a conclusion that it would be impossible to tell whether water was the cause of the cancer cluster.

For instance, in 1991, a city water official drew on a map several census tracts most likely to receive contaminated drinking water from the polluted wells. But informed critics say the map was misleading because it did not take into account the underground pipe system that determined which homes got the contaminated water.

Relying on this misleading map, the state concluded there was no link between contaminated city water and the leukemia cases.

DHS used this conclusion as the basis for a controversial decision. The state decided its "case control" study of Maryvale would look at many, many possible causes for childhood leukemia in Maryvale, including house dust, secondhand smoke and medicines mothers took when they were pregnant.

But the study would not seriously investigate whether TCE contamination of drinking water was a possible cause for at least some of the childhood leukemias.

DHS officials say they are still interested in the possibility of contaminated drinking water as a causal factor. But, they say, they are limited by a lack of data.

A Scottsdale water engineer working for west-siders suing the city says it is possible to get that data.

In a sworn affidavit, William Gookin says computer models can estimate when contamination reached drinking-water wells in Maryvale. When combined with historical information about the city's piping system and pumping records, Gookin says, that modeling can estimate which homes got the most contaminated water--a scientific estimate that the state claims is impossible to compile.

(Similar computer modeling was used by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, which released a 1996 study that determined that childhood-leukemia cases in Woburn, Massachusetts, were associated with exposure by pregnant mothers to drinking water laced with TCE.)

Tim Flood is a DHS doctor who inherited the case control study after the former study director left DHS several years ago. Flood is not convinced that sophisticated computer modeling would determine whether TCE-laced water was a cause of some of the Maryvale leukemia cases.

"I would think that would be pretty speculative modeling," he says.
But there can be no speculation about one fact: Water and TCE aside, the Department of Health Services is more than five years late in completing its study. That $600,000 case control study was designed to include families of all 49 Maryvale children who contracted leukemia from 1965 to 1986.

DHS officials have long said one reason for the delay was the difficult, time-consuming task of locating families of victims who'd died years before.

But the agency apparently didn't look particularly hard for those families.
The Guzmans and the Johnsons, who lived near the contaminated wells, were not asked to join the study.

It would have been easy to find them. Neither of the families has changed addresses since their daughters fell ill with leukemia. Both families are listed in the phone book.

Another reason for the delay, per Flood: The study took on too many possible causes.

Flood says he warned the former director of the study "about the study being too ambitious, and he didn't really listen to me."

"I would like to get this thing out. I'm really disappointed in myself for not getting this thing out," he says.

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