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High Dioxin Level Measured but No Link to Town's Cancers Is Seen

June 15, 1989|JENIFER WARREN | Times Staff Writer

ROSAMOND, Calif. — Chicken eggs from a home near several toxic waste sites here contained 300 times the level of dioxin commonly found in grocery store eggs, results of tests released Wednesday by state officials show.

But the officials said that despite the toxic chemical found at a high level at the one home and in lesser amounts elsewhere in the community, the findings cannot be linked to the unusually high number of cases of cancer among children here.

"It is safe to live here in Rosamond," said Lynn Goldman, chief of environmental epidemiology and toxicology for the State Department of Health Services. Residents of the desert town should be comforted by the "reassuring data," she said.

However, Goldman said that eggs from the one home, located near toxic waste sites, should not be consumed because tests showed dioxin far in excess of acceptable limits set by regulatory agencies. Dioxin is a known cause of cancer.

At a press conference called to unveil the findings, health officials said dioxin at the one home was probably emitted from the smoke stack of a nearby smelting plant, became attached to dust particles and was dropped into the back yard where it was consumed by foraging chickens.

Goldman also said that soil tests at 130 locations in and around Rosamond revealed just one site--other than industrial facilities--where dioxin levels are above the acceptable amounts.

However, she said, soils surrounding the homes of cancer victims showed levels of dioxin no higher than that typically found in the environment at large.

There are no homes near the contaminated soil and Goldman concluded that, overall, the state's long-awaited findings were encouraging and showed no evidence linking dioxin with the cluster of unusual childhood cancers here.

Dave Kiefer, a father of three who owns a feed store in town, was not wholly persuaded.

While relieved that dioxin had not been found in soil samples gathered near his home, Kiefer remains convinced that smelting plants three miles upwind of his house that continue to belch pollutants into the air are harmful.

"They shut down a restaurant if they see too many cockroaches, but the state can't seem to stop these toxic burners," Kiefer said. "These studies didn't find dioxin in certain places, but I know the winds. It could be in spots they didn't check. We just don't know."

Goldman agreed that the state's tests, conducted in a 40-square-mile area, are preliminary. But she said the findings contain no evidence that dioxin exposure caused eight cases of cancer contracted by children here between 1975 and 1984.

In addition to the dioxin-contaminated eggs at the one home near several smelting plants outside town, eggs from two other homes elsewhere in Rosamond contained levels slightly above that found in supermarket eggs. Owners of those chickens were advised to reduce their consumption of eggs to three or four a week.

High Cancer Rate

The results, although not as alarming as many residents had feared, brought little relief to this quiet desert town north of Lancaster.

Since 1986, when state health officials first discovered that children living in Rosamond were contracting cancer at five times the normal rate, people here have waited anxiously for definitive answers from authorities. Some, impatient and fearful for their health, have fled. But others have spent decades in Rosamond--a primary bedroom community for nearby Edwards Air Force Base--and are reluctant to pack up. Still others can't afford to.

"I don't want to leave, but we've been waiting and waiting, living on a tightrope," said Stormy Williams, a 33-year resident of Rosamond whose husband and father-in-law died of cancer. I had two of my grandkids living with me for awhile and you just don't know what they're breathing. We're all nervous wrecks."

All but three of the eight children stricken with cancer between 1975 and 1984 have died. Four of the youngsters died of a rare brain cancer known as medulla blastoma (tumor of the medulla).

Rosamond's childhood cancer rate is the highest in California and twice as high as that of the farming community of McFarland, another Kern County town where the rate is high. In McFarland, the cancer rate among children is 36.7 cases per 100,000 children while in Rosamond the rate is 72 per 100,000.

The number of childhood brain cancers in Rosamond is the largest the state has recorded for a town its size.

Despite a battery of ongoing studies, researchers say the cause of the cancer cluster may never be known. Scientists looking for clues say Rosamond's history as a notorious dumping ground for toxic products may be to blame, but pinpointing the guilty contaminants is a daunting challenge.

Because of its remote location, Rosamond was for years a popular destination for junk dealers seeking to dispose of a variety of hazardous materials. Long-time residents recall watching fleets of trucks descend on their town, leaving everything from car batteries to barrels of sodium cyanide in their wake.

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