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Officials Assailed for Slowness in Probing Cancer Clusters

October 17, 1987|RONALD B. TAYLOR | Times Staff Writer

BAKERSFIELD — Anguished parents Friday scolded government officials for what they called slow action in finding out why an unusually high number of children have contracted cancer in four San Joaquin Valley communities.

Testifying before the state Senate Committee on Toxics and Public Safety Management, the parents and some expert witnesses were critical of the way state and county health officials have responded to the increasing cancer rates.

"We need help . . . There have been two new cases within two blocks of my house this year," said Connie Rosales, who lives in McFarland and whose teen-age son has cancer. She told the committee that from 26 to 30 children have come down with cancer in McFarland since 1983. Yet, she complained, Kern County and state health officials have studied only 10 of these cases and have still found no answers.

The high number of cancer cases in McFarland, a farming town of 6,400 people, were first brought to public attention two years ago by these same parents of cancer victims. At that time, 11 children had contracted cancer, a number four times the expected cancer rate, according to state officials.

Other High Cancer Rates

While the McFarland cluster of cases is the most notorious, unusually high cancer rates have also been found among children in the Kern County communities of Rosamond and Tehachapi and a fourth cluster is suspected 80 miles to the north in the Fresno County community of Fowler, committee documents show.

Pressured by the reports of the cancer cases, the Kern County Health Department and the state Department of Health Services launched epidemiology studies seeking the cause. But both county and state health officials acknowledge that their studies have established no cause for the cancers. They acknowledged that their epidemiology studies are behind schedule and that they are hampered by a lack of funding and resources.

"The basic question of why we have these cancer clusters has not been answered," said Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), committee chairman, as he opened the hearing. "Since the initial McFarland studies began . . . a number of communities have experienced elevated rates of childhood cancers . . . . There is serious concern that the studies conducted to date have been inadequate."

10 Cases Included in Study

According to Vern Reichard, director the county's environmental health unit, only 10 cases were included in the McFarland study. Another 13 cases reported to the county did not fit into the study's parameters, he said. The study included only youngsters living inside McFarland's city limits between 1975 and 1985 and whose cases were diagnosed before they were 20 years old, Reichard said.

Two more recent cases have been added to the study, he said, bringing the total to 12.

"The county does not have the expertise to carry out this kind of a study," said Beverly Paigen, an Oakland biologist and widely recognized expert in the field of childhood susceptibilities to toxic materials. Paigen testified that the state also was handicapped by a lack of funding and staffing and that the studies to date "have taken too long and are not as professional as they should be."

Paigen, who has helped both the state and the county in the studies of the McFarland cluster, told the committee the studies should be broadened to include all of the cancer cases. "Since the original study was done there have been more cases of cancer and these should be included," she said.

Working on her own, as a volunteer consultant to parents in McFarland, Paigen said she has gathered other data, such as the number of low birth-weight babies born each year. Elevated numbers of low birth-weight babies indicate that there may be a three-year "window of exposure" to some kind of toxin that occurred in the McFarland area starting in 1981, she said.

Coincides With Cancer Outbreak

The low birth-weight data coincides with the cancer outbreak, according to Paigen. Such clues need to be cross-checked with other available information, she said, but this has not been done.

According to documents released by the committee, the community of Rosamond, near Edwards Air Force Base, had 17 cases of childhood cancer in 11 years, a rate that is six times what should be expected. The rate in the tiny mountain community of Tehachapi was four times normal, according to these reports.

"It's been painful, here we are two years later without answers," said Dr. Raymond Neutra, chief of epidemiological studies for the state. He pointed out that his staff must respond to scores of hazardous waste and toxic-spill problems that are immediate. Without more staffing and funding, he said, the McFarland study gets pushed further behind.

Neutra and county officials both explained that studies of this kind take enormous resources because researchers first must determine if the cancer cases are linked in any way, and if so, to determine the relationship. Often such studies are never able to pinpoint the cause or causes of the problem, he said.

Torres, who was critical of Kern County's handling of the study, closed the hearing by saying that he plans to introduce legislation to require the state to take over such investigations. Torres is proposing a state center for environmental disease control, similar to the federal center in Atlanta, he said.

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