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Cancer linked to U.S. bases?

Unanswered questions frustrate Utahns, others

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Across the country, local health departments, faced with a public outcry, are scrambling to discover whether serious diseases are linked to Defense Department activities.

While cancer clusters have been located around various defense stations, health organizations have failed to prove the diseases are connected to the military.

Three similar cases have earned particular scrutiny:

In Utah, the Davis County Health Department is searching for the root of brain-cancer clusters in South Weber and Layton. In one ZIP code, 84405, which includes South Weber and a small portion of Layton, health department director Lewis Garrett found brain cancer rates from 1996 to 1999 were more than 11 times higher than expected. In one year, 1997, the rate was 25 times above normal. Three other Layton and South Weber ZIP codes are also being examined as part of the brain-cancer study. The two communities sit north and southeast of Hill Air Force Base, and residents fear the military post or a nearby garbage incinerator could be responsible.

In Fallon, Nev., the state health department continues to probe residents' claims that at least 13 cases of acute childhood leukemia have been caused by activities at Fallon Naval Air Station.

Locals in San Antonio, Texas, were upset last month after a government agency issued a report declaring operations at Kelly Air Force Base couldn't be linked to leukemia, liver, lung and breast-cancer clusters.

Common threads abound among the three.

First, health agencies have shown that areas surrounding installations do contain heightened levels of serious disease.

Second, the military bases have all produced environmental conditions that could cause the adverse health conditions.

Third, no health agency has been able to specifically link the Defense Department's environmental shortcomings to the increased illnesses.

However, the evidence and unanswered questions have fueled residents' fears that the military is indeed causing disease.

"The Air Force is very good at withholding information," said San Antonio resident Armando Quintanilla, a longtime watchdog of base contamination and resulting illness. "Of course, nobody wants to point fingers at the Air Force because it provides thousands of jobs to the people up there."

After years of study, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry last month reported there were high instances of fatal diseases in San Antonio.

The report also found that Kelly Air Force Base — which closed last week as part of the federal government's military downsizing effort — had negatively affected the environment by contaminating groundwater and producing air pollution. Both could cause the afflictions, which, besides cancer, include birth defects and 70 to 80 instances of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease.

Still, the agency stopped short of linking the health problems to the Air Force.

"We know there (are) elevated cancers, and we know that there is contamination at Kelly; those are the facts," said John Abraham, chief of the agency's exposure investigations and consultations branch. "However, it doesn't appear that the two are related."

No answers

The same seems to be the case in Utah and Nevada.

As in San Antonio, the health department in Davis County is aware of contamination caused by Air Force activities. Most notably, a large underground plume of toxic solvents seeped into the groundwater during the 1970s.

The solvents, including TCE, can cause cancer, but the health department cannot, at this point, make any links between Hill and the neighboring brain-cancer cluster.

"It's still too early to say if some of the reports are accurate," said Kevin Condra, Davis County Health Department spokesman. "The base and several other things will be looked at as possible sources."

Condra said the health department is currently re-examining the brain-cancer statistics to determine if they are as high as initially thought.

Officials at Hill are aware of the cluster but aren't commenting yet, instead deferring questions to the health department.

Hill routinely checks wells and monitors the plume's movement but has found no evidence that toxins have leaked into the drinking-water supply.

Quintanilla saw the Air Force take similar measures in San Antonio, but people continue to sicken. Hair falls out in clumps. Babies frequently suffer from low birth weight.

"If there is no link between Kelly Air Force Base and the diseases, then what is elevating the cases of cancer and other diseases?" he asks.

Quintanilla and others believe heightened levels of benzene and jet-fuel pollution in the air have contributed to the illnesses.

Responding to the public outcry, the Air Force is pledging $5 million to help screen the sick and help the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District find the cause.

Linda Kaufman, environmental health nurse manager for the health district in Texas, has already screened 789 people who lived in or around the now-closed base.

Diseases range from diabetes to cancer, and Kaufman is compiling the information in a database. She wants to show that people who worked or lived in certain areas are now suffering from specific diseases. The goal is to find a link to the illnesses.

"The people say they know it's in the water, or they think it might be air emissions," Kaufman said. "Those reports are coming to us, and we have to figure it out."

Multiple theories

Similar reports have flooded the Nevada Division of Health.

Residents in Fallon, 60 miles east of Reno, are adamant that the nearby military base is causing high occurrences of leukemia in their children.

Officials at Fallon Naval Air Station are cooperating with the state as well as the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry. To date the Navy has given 1,000 pages of information to the health groups, said station public information officer Anne McMillin.

Despite the concern and the investigation, residents continue to be frustrated because apparently no data can pinpoint the leukemia cluster's source.

"They can't find any cause. They just don't know," McMillin said. "There are all kinds of theories, from mosquito abatement to random chance to jets. With the lack of knowing exactly what's causing it, a lot of theories arise."

Such uncertainty has also prompted theories to multiply in northern Utah.

From Hill to the garbage incinerator to the population's age, the health department has been given much information about potential sources.

Condra said the Davis County Health Department is continuing to investigate the cancer cluster and is analyzing data from the Utah Cancer Registry in an effort to determine precisely how high brain-cancer levels are. New data from the registry as well as updated census figures should help, he said.

E-MAIL: bsnyder@desnews.com