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Piercing Together The West-side Cancer Cluster

The 800 people who stormed into the Maryvale High School auditorium one June night in 1987 were outraged and insulted. They had just learned from this newspaper that for more than a decade, a suspiciously high number of children in their working-class part of town had died of cancer.

Although that frightening information was news to them, it was old stuff at the state health department: It had long been aware of the bizarre cluster of childhood- leukemia deaths on the west side, but for five long years, had repeatedly refused to launch any meaningful investigation.

The anxious audience shouted angry questions at state officials and the doctors who had come to calm them--to tell them there was probably nothing wrong.

Why had the health department they trusted turned its back on their dying children? Why hadn't officials told them of the hidden pollutants lurking in their environment, poisons they thought might be murdering their young? Why did it take newspaper articles to get officials to face the community?

The stories had revealed that for several frustrating years, the principal of Maryvale's St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Elementary School had pleaded with the health department to investigate why twelve of her students contracted cancer from 1965 to 1985. She counted another sixteen kids who got cancer in neighboring public schools. Most of the cancers were leukemia.

The health department itself then determined--using hastily assembled data--that from 1970 to 1981, the west side had a high rate of childhood-leukemia deaths. But after giving St. Vincent's a quick once-over for carcinogens, officials mollified the nun by saying there was nothing wrong. They explained the high death rate was probably just a statistical glitch, a random gathering of numbers that was regrettable but no cause for alarm.

That explanation sounded irresponsible to the parents gathered in the high school that summer night. Already they knew that two of Maryvale's drinking-water wells had been closed in 1982 because they were polluted with suspected carcinogens. Was this water the cause? Was the dirty air the problem? What about all the industry in the neighborhood? Is that where the cancer was coming from? They demanded health studies to see if their polluted environment was the killer. They also demanded immediate cleanup of the area's fouled groundwater.

Government officials promised to do both.

A YEAR AND A HALF LATER, most of those 800 people seem to have lost their rage. In fact, they seem to have lost their interest altogether. The community's collective ennui was evident a few months ago when the Arizona Department of Health Services (DHS) wanted family members of cancer victims to provide information about their relatives. All they had to do was fill out forms that could be clipped out of newspapers.

Only three people bothered to send in the forms.
That same lethargy was obvious last month when only about thirty people showed up at a public meeting in a Maryvale hotel. A panel of scientists from across the country had gathered to explain the progress of the leukemia studies. And staffers from the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) were there to explain the progress of the monitoring and cleanup of Maryvale's polluted environment. If more people had bothered to show up that night, they would have learned that Maryvale's problems are far from over:

* The childhood-leukemia death rate in Maryvale is much worse than anyone suspected. For sixteen years, from 1970 to 1986, west-side kids died of leukemia at twice the expected national rate. Because the high rate has dragged on so long-- because it didn't stop, as a glitch would have--most scientists are now saying the deaths are a true cluster. Until very recently, the daily newspapers and local television stations erroneously reported that the high death rate stopped in 1981. That's because the health department report buried the statistics in jargon, and a scientist who acts as a west-side spokesman did not make the information clear to the press.

* The environmental quality department has drawn criticism from industry and citizens alike for botching Maryvale's cleanup and environmental monitoring. So far, the department has failed to finger industrial polluters to clean up contaminated groundwater; has failed to force hundreds of potential polluters to fill out forms sent out more than a year ago; has not conducted soil sampling for pesticides it promised Maryvale residents a year ago.

* The health department's ongoing leukemia studies are slogging along at a frustratingly slow pace. A staff of ten sometimes spends as much as 400 hours a week gathering information, but the agency lacks such crucial help as an epidemiologist--an expert who determines what causes outbreaks of disease. The state's efforts to hire an epidemiologist were thwarted for months by an official with the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), a state legislator charges. However, Tim Flood, the health department doctor who is directing the studies, is getting high marks from fellow scientists and most of the public.

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Terry Greene