Longform

The Pain of Maryvale

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"You have a daughter with leukemia, and you want to save her," the stranger told Joe.

"But you can't save her. They all die."
Then the man turned and shuffled off into the darkness on West Osborn Road. Joe never saw him again. But he wonders now if the man was one of the Maryvale parents who'd lost a child to the disease.

Joe was terribly disturbed--is still disturbed--by the visit. At the time, the high school Spanish teacher was already under considerable stress. His daughter Cathy had been diagnosed with leukemia when she was 3 years old.

Cathy's medical bills, even with insurance, were overwhelming. As much as Joe longed to be with the child, he spent extra hours away from home trying to earn the money to care for his wife, Pauline, and six other children. Besides teaching, Joe worked odd jobs. He was a census gatherer, a night clerk in a hotel, a Spanish teacher for Peace Corps volunteers.

Pauline remembers that more than once she'd run to the phone and call her mother in New Mexico. "Mama, please get on the Greyhound," she'd say. "Come take care of the other kids; Cathy has to go to the hospital again."

Pauline still cries when she recalls returning home late in the day from Cathy's hospital room, trying to behave as if nothing were wrong, so as not to upset the other children. After Cathy died in 1972 at the age of 7, the doctor told Pauline to throw away her child's pictures, clothes and toys. "Get a job, Pauline," the doctor said.

"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.

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Terry Greene Sterling