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Birth defect rate in Kettleman City, California not unusual

FRESNO, Calif. — State health officials said Tuesday they found nothing unusual about the rate of birth defects among infants in a San Joaquin Valley farm town located next to the largest toxic waste dump in the West.

The officials told a packed meeting of the Kings County Board of Supervisors that they had discovered no common cause for the birth abnormalities and facial defects among children in Kettleman City.

"It's important to keep in mind that this is a preliminary finding, and we are going to be in the community gathering additional information," said Kevin Reilly, chief deputy director of the California Department of Public Health. "Our interest is trying to find some answers for these families if we can."

Kettleman City saw an average of 1.09 birth defects per 100 live births between 1987 and 2008, Reilly said. The rate was not unusually high when compared to a rate of 0.94 for the surrounding five-county region between 1987 and 2007, he added. Regional data for 2008 is not yet available.

A survey done by Greenaction, an environmental justice group, found that of 20 children born in the area from September 2007 to November 2008, six had defects including clefts in their palates or lips.

Many residents have said the health problems were caused by the landfill and have rallied to stop its proposed expansion, which needs state and federal approval.

Officials of Chemical Waste Management Inc. said they welcomed the scrutiny and were confident it would show their operation was not causing the birth defects.

Activists have raised concerns for several years about the number of babies born with cleft palates in the largely Spanish-speaking community of 1,500 people along Interstate 5, the main artery linking Northern and Southern California.

Every day, thousands of diesel trucks pass by Kettleman City on the highway. In addition, the town is bisected by high-tension power lines, and many residents work in nearby fields sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

The concerns of residents drew reactions in recent weeks, as a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visited the area and toured the landfill.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered state officials to investigate health issues.