Eight years ago, nearly 1,000 west-side residents crowded into the Maryvale High School auditorium to accuse doctors from the Arizona Department of Health Services of ignoring what they saw as an alarming leukemia rate among Maryvale's children.
The 1987 meeting was held on a muggy July night. It was a big event. TV, radio and print reporters sweated and scribbled notes as residents took turns venting into a microphone.
Politicians, including representatives from the office of newly elected U.S. Senator John McCain, promised immediate studies to try to determine the reason Maryvale's young had been stricken. In the months that followed, a DHS study was set up, to be designed and overseen by a panel of distinguished out-of-state scientists picked by the federal Centers for Disease Control. The legislature gave DHS more than $1 million to conduct the three-part study. Tim Flood, a DHS doctor, was named as the lead state scientist.
The study was to have been completed in 1991, the scientists said. But despite pledges of swift action, it still hasn't been finished.
Actually, the first two phases of the study did come in on time, and both contained bad news. Phase One concluded that from 1965 to 1986, kids from the area died from leukemia at twice the national rate. Phase Two concluded that from 1965 to 1986, children in the same area contracted leukemia at twice the rate of youngsters from the rest of Maricopa County. (After 1986, the rates became normal and the cluster disappeared, DHS says.)
But Phase Three--which was supposed to explore causes of the 21-year outbreak--presents a no-win situation for DHS. If the agency finds a reason for the illnesses, the Chamber of Commerce types will blame the agency for giving the area a bad name and lowering real estate rates. If DHS fails to find a reason, the victims and their families will be furious.
Which may explain why the health department is in no hurry to complete the task.
First, DHS moved the deadline for Phase Three to 1993.
Now Flood says the study might be completed in 1996.
That's five years late.
But then, nobody really seems to care anymore. McCain's office did not respond to a request for an interview. Neither did DHS director Jack Dillenberg or two of the scientists named to the panel that designed the study. State Senator Brenda Burns, one of several west-side politicos who pushed for state action in 1987 (and the only one still in office), did not respond to a request for an interview, either.
As for the victims, well, they have other things on their minds. Like lawsuits. A grandparent of one Maryvale leukemia victim says she'd like to comment on the incompleted state study, but she's been gagged by her lawyer.
Many Maryvale residents have joined a class-action lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court. The lawsuit alleges several companies polluted the area, making the children sick. The lawsuit was filed a year after DHS' Phase Three study was initially supposed to be completed.
"We were told [by state health officials] to be patient and wait for the study," says Melody Baker, a plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit and an environmental activist. "We're still waiting."
"We ran into several roadblocks and hurdles and all that," says Flood of the five-year delay.
Asked to elaborate, Flood says, "Oh, there is so much, I can't even go into it now." He suggests the citizens are part of the problem--the project became "enormous" in part because citizens wanted a lot of questions answered.
DHS has not compiled a record of responsiveness in Maryvale. It first learned there was a problem 13 years ago, when a Catholic nun roamed the neighborhood, looking for signs of industrial dumping that might explain the terrifying secret she shared with a few parents, sick kids and the Arizona Department of Health Services.
As principal of St. Vincent de Paul Catholic elementary school in Maryvale, Sister Joyce Weller had asked for DHS' help in 1982 when she counted several cases of childhood leukemia among her students and children living near the school. Most of the kids lived near polluted industrial zones and, at one time, the homes of some had been serviced by water wells contaminated with TCE, a suspected carcinogen. (The wells are no longer in service. The area water is safe, city officials say.)
The health department agreed that the childhood leukemia rate seemed high, but advised the nun and parents to keep silent so as not to cause a panic. There was no sense in studying the "cancer cluster," the health department said, because such studies were costly and often came up with no cause for the illnesses.
That all changed in 1987 after news reports detailed the state's inaction.
Thirteen years later, DHS still hasn't come up with an answer.
Among the DHS scientists who were aware of the Maryvale cluster back in the early Eighties was Norm Petersen, who is now Tim Flood's boss and an assistant director at DHS.
"Unless you do the work every day, I'm sure it must seem a mystery as to why it's taken so long," he says.
Petersen blames the class-action lawsuit for part of the delay. He says no work was done on Phase Three for a year, while DHS grappled with lawyers representing residents.
Phase Three is drawn in part from sensitive questionnaires filled out by victims and their families, Petersen says, and lawyers were attempting to have the questionnaires "made public."
"We couldn't do that," says Petersen, because DHS must protect the privacy of patients.
So the state obtained a "privacy certificate" from the federal government which prevents lawyers from obtaining the raw data, Petersen says.
It also prevents the lawyers from getting fodder for their lawsuits, and, perhaps, naming DHS as a defendant.
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As for the delay, Petersen says: "The study kept getting bigger and bigger all the time." Petersen says DHS investigated sources it hadn't planned on looking at as potential causes of the cancer, such as house dust and traffic pollution.
Petersen says maybe DHS shouldn't say when it expects studies to be completed. "I don't know why we don't . . . tell people we'll let them know when the study is done.
"It's not a dead issue to us," says Petersen. "It's going to be an outstanding, high-quality study. We can't wait to see the results.
"It has not diminished in importance one bit.