Like Rottweilers, Pam Swift and Teri Johnson fight with a deep, dark instinct. Sometimes, you wonder why these two west Phoenix environmentalists don't shut up. Other times, you can't help but admire them for fighting battles somebody's got to fight.
One of them always seems to be on TV, marching and protesting. You will often see them when the cameras cover meetings of the Maryvale leukemia cluster, ranting at their "enemy"--state bureaucrats from the Department of Health Services and the Department of Environmental Quality. Sometimes, when they face off in a windowless room--the tightlipped women against the tightlipped bureaucrats--the air is so thick with hatred from both sides you can hardly inhale. Occasionally, Johnson brings along a baby she's watching. Often, Swift shows up with a video recorder to document the meetings. "Deep Throat it ain't," she'll sarcastically say.
"We have to go to those meetings and be obnoxious bitches and stick the knife in and twist it because they've been lying to us from the git-go," says Swift.
More moderate environmentalists say people like Swift and Johnson are so fringey, bitter and paranoid no bureaucrat or politician will listen to them, and so the women can't effect any change in the state's environmental and health policies. But that's not true. When the moderates lose interest in subjects like the strange outbreak of childhood leukemia in Maryvale, Swift and Johnson keep putting the heat on bureaucrats studying the tragedy, letting them know the public is looking over their shoulder. Of course, even when state workers do a good job, the activists suspect them of covering up. Sometimes it's hard to tell who's right.
Back in June 1987, New Times broke the news that there seemed to be a cluster of childhood leukemia in Maryvale, an area contaminated by polluted air, soil and groundwater. The state had failed for three years to thoroughly investigate the cancer cluster, which was centered at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic School. But the news of the cluster prompted the public to pressure state health officials to launch studies, under the eye of a scientists panel appointed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The first studies have confirmed the existence of a leukemia cluster, but experts say the probable cause may never be pinned down.
But the activists have always suspected the experts are covering up. These days, Swift says she's caught DHS in yet another cover-up.
Last week, DHS confirmed that six more west-side kids have gotten leukemia since 1987.
Swift and Johnson say they've heard rumors that two other St. Vincent students have contracted leukemia, and the activists have repeatedly asked the health department to confirm or deny it. The activists say if the rumor is true, there might be an environmental problem on school grounds.
St. Vincent's administrators have said over and over that they've not heard of any new cases of leukemia among their students. The school says it has already run extensive environmental tests and found its grounds were perfectly safe.
The health department does not deny there may be more cases of leukemia at the school, but refuses to investigate the matter, other than to ask school administrators whether the allegations are true. In what seems like a familiar case of bureaucratic doublespeak, DHS says it can't investigate the rumor because it must protect the integrity of future scientific studies.
The way DHS looks at it, if you gather preliminary information--such as counting leukemia cases at the school--before you've designed a formal study, you're biasing the study. A statistics expert at Harvard agrees with DHS' seemingly strange logic about not biasing the study.
"Obviously, we're not trying to hide anything from anybody. We want to get to the bottom of this," says Dr. Steve Englender, director of DHS' division of disease prevention. But the health agency also admits it doesn't want to unduly alarm the public about the school.
The west-side activists aren't buying any excuses. "They're just trying to protect that school," grumbles Swift. "The cover-up goes deep."
"I don't think they should make allegations like that when they don't know if they are true," says Timothy Flood, a DHS doctor who's worked on the cancer studies for three years. "Of course they can say whatever they want, regardless of whether it's true."
But Swift and Johnson point to what they see as other evidence of cover-up. After months of promising a so-called $470,000 "case-control study" to look into possible causes of the cluster, Flood now says he may not be able to do it. He says he may not find enough families of victims to study, and if he doesn't find enough families, he may not get reliable statistical results.
In which case the state would have to conduct a less formal study, a quickie exercise that other scientists would have a field day shooting holes into. Until they decide what study to do, and how they're going to do it, DHS doctors refuse to give the public any idea of what might have caused the leukemia.