ROSAMOND, Calif. — For more than 40 years, this remote desert community in southern Kern County existed as an unregulated destination for junkmen needing a place to burn, bury and dump waste products ranging from copper wire to car batteries.
Along with the junkmen came carbon products manufacturers and metal recovery plants, which belched foul-smelling smoke that settled on this town of 3,200 people at the western gate of Edwards Air Force Base and stung the eyes and noses of residents.
But the people who lived here rarely complained about the junkyards and smelters or the refuse-fueled bonfires that glowed across the desert at night. After all, they came here in search of freedom from big-city rules and regulations and lived by a simple creed: Mind your own business.
That attitude changed abruptly when state health officials two years ago discovered that children living in Rosamond were contracting cancer at five times the normal rate--the highest known childhood cancer rate in California, according to state Department of Health Services epidemiologists.
Nine children here were stricken with cancer between 1975 and 1985, and only three have survived, health officials said. Five of the nine children died of rare brain cancers, the cause of which is unknown.
The childhood cancer rate in Rosamond is twice as high as that in the Kern County agricultural community of McFarland, which has received far more attention from news media. McFarland has a childhood cancer rate of 36.7 cases per 100,000 children, compared with 72 per 100,000 in Rosamond.
While researchers say the cause of McFarland's cancers may never be known, here health investigators are challenged by a staggering variety and quantity of highly toxic and carcinogenic substances that have been deposited indiscriminately along city streets, fields and company yards for decades.
"I have never seen this much waste in one town before," said Kenneth Hughes, a hazardous waste specialist with the state's Toxic Substances Control Division. "The amounts and concentrations are alarming."
Even though health officials have limited their studies in Rosamond to children, parents here say the cancer rate among adults is equally disturbing.
"It seems everybody here dies of cancer," said Stormy Williams, 54, a Rosamond resident of 32 years. "Once in a while, you hear of a heart attack or a stroke."
Health officials, however, say they are focusing on children for the time being because of the extreme difficulty in finding causes for cancer among adults, who often have histories of smoking, drinking or working under potentially hazardous conditions. Beyond that, cancer is the second-leading cause of death among adults in the nation.
"In Rosamond, the childhood cancer rate is higher than the Bay Area or Los Angeles," said Martha Harnly, an epidemiologist with the Department of Health Services.
Of particular concern are four cases of medullablastoma (tumor of the medulla, a portion of the lower brain) and one case of cancer of the cerebellum (a portion of the midbrain). That is the largest number of childhood brain cancers the state has recorded in a town of Rosamond's size, Harnly said.
Meanwhile, state investigators leading an ongoing $500,000 study of Rosamond's air, water and soil have identified 35 sites to be tested for possible contamination, although they acknowledge that they may never find a definitive cause for the cancers. Earlier this month, they uncovered at two locations a health threat from elevated levels of lead of such concern that two families were advised to leave their property.
The 35 sites include a 50-ton heap of toxic lead oxide, a 20-ton pile of poisonous lead waste from lead-acid batteries, 100,000 tons of petroleum coke containing potentially carcinogenic carbon compounds and a 10-acre unauthorized disposal site containing heavy metals, as well as dioxins, a potent cause of cancer in laboratory animals, health officials said. Scattered across town are clumps of abandoned 50-gallon drums, some of which contained toxic chemicals, including sodium cyanide.
In addition, a test of a water-cooler filter pad from Rosamond Elementary School revealed 13 times the normal level of thallium, a highly toxic metal used in the production of rodent poison and military communications equipment, health officials said. The origin of the thallium, which though toxic has not been linked to cancer, remains a mystery.
Elsewhere, health officials said, they found elevated levels of toxic heavy metals and dioxins at three metal reclamation plants located 10 miles north of Rosamond, all of which have been cited in the past for illegally discharging toxic smoke.