Fallon, Nevada’s deadly legacy

In a small town once plagued by childhood cancer, some families still search for answers.

  • April Brune holds a stuffed dog that belonged to her son, Ryan, who died from brain cancer in 2009. The Brunes, along with several families who live or used to live in Fallon, Nevada, believe environmental factors there are at least partly to blame for numerous cases of childhood cancer.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • The former Brune home on Briggs Lane in Fallon, vacant between renters, and surrounded by tumbleweeds.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Jeff and Debbie Braccini on their ranch in Fallon. Their son, Jeremy, survived leukemia. Jeff went on to delve into – and poke holes in – the studies surrounding the cancer cluster.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • A report from tests on the Braccini family found elevated levels of numerous metals and chemicals.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • A tungsten mill as seen through the swings at Northside Elementary School in Fallon, Nevada.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Signs mark the Kinder Morgan jet fuel pipeline that travels through Fallon.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Jack Allen refuels an F-16 fighter jet, left, at Fallon Naval Air Station. Jet fuel, which has carcinogenic components, is pumped through Fallon in a Kinder Morgan pipeline that many people believe has leaked.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • A Kennametal kiln refines tungsten ore 10 miles north of town.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Gary Ridenour, a Fallon doctor, has teamed up with April Brune's attorney, Alan Levin, to uncover environmental causes of cancer. But they're at odds with town and state officials, who have accused them of spreading false information.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
  • Students trickle out of E.C. Best Elementary School in Fallon, which Ryan Brune had attended since preschool. Attorney Alan Levin has charged that a leak in the Kinder Morgan jet fuel pipeline that runs beside the school contributed to the boy's brain cancer.

    Max Whittaker/Prime
 

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Peoples' guesses as to what caused the cancer vary. Some say the cluster was a media myth, or that "all the new people coming to Nevada" prompted the spike in cases. An elderly woman, whose nephew is an epidemiologist, told me, "If you throw up a handful of rocks, you're going to end up with clusters of rocks." When I asked if she thought there might be something in the water, she said, "No, honey. I think we pretty much come with what we get." Others attribute it to "something at the Navy base"; a pipeline leak; pesticides; radiation from an atomic bomb test site 20 miles to the southeast. Some believe that whatever caused the cluster lingered; they bathe their children in bottled water. One mother said she feeds her sons extra vitamins "to counter whatever it is that's doing it." Many people simply rolled or averted their eyes at mention of the cluster.

"There are a lot in Fallon that want it all behind them," Jeff Braccini, whose son survived leukemia, told me in July. "The mayor – if he could pay to have the Internet slicked, I know he would." Braccini has a chiseled face and small blue eyes. He had just returned from the Navy base, where he is an aircraft mechanic. We sat on his porch, watching geese turn circles in a pond. "I don't think it's the kind of thing you can just shove away," he said. "Kids died from this. And there's still kids getting sick."

His son was diagnosed in December 2001. The CDC had nearly finished collecting samples from study participants but would not release its results for another year. Braccini initially believed the investigation would find answers, but his confidence waned when he joined Fallon Families First, a program founded by the mayor's wife to offer emotional and financial support to cluster families. At meetings, parents criticized investigators for their slow progress. It had taken the CDC a year to prepare equipment and get permission to study human subjects. By the time investigators collected samples, most children had finished treatment, and some had died.

When his son stabilized, Braccini immersed himself in the scientific literature. He understood that science takes time, that the cause of leukemia was uncertain, and that there might be not one cause, but several. He knew, too, that an epidemiological investigation would not answer certain questions; it could reveal contaminants in children's bodies, for example, but not whether those contaminants had acted in tandem to cause leukemia.

Still, Braccini believed there were holes in the investigation. He suspected one difference between his son and healthy children was not the degree to which they were exposed to toxic substances, but whether they had the genetic tools to detoxify their bodies. He had heard health officials mention this possibility, but genetic studies had only a minor role in the CDC investigation. Braccini also faulted the state's Department of Environmental Protection for not sampling air and soil more extensively. Investigators collected soils from yards and dust from inside houses, but they seemed to look for contaminants in the wrong places, swabbing television screens and carpets instead of corners families rarely cleaned or ditches where children played. When parents voiced concerns, said Braccini, "It was always the same response. 'That's not in our protocol,' " or,  " 'You just don't understand the science.' "

Experts appointed by the state Health Division named three suspected causes. The first, arsenic, was ruled out. Fallon's drinking water had the highest level of any municipality in the nation, 10 times the federal standard, but it occurred naturally and existed long before the cluster appeared. And although repeated exposure can cause skin and bladder cancer, there is no evidence it causes leukemia. A second theory, that a virus infected the children, could have explained why the cluster grew so quickly. Scientists have linked viruses to other kinds of cancer – human papilloma virus to cervical cancer, for example – and research suggests that certain infections can trigger leukemia. But investigators found nothing of note when they tested children.

The third theory – exposure to pollutants – implicated jet fuel. Though not classified as a carcinogen, it contains benzene, which has been linked to acute myeloid leukemia. Only one child had AML; if fuel was the cause, investigators believed, there should have been more. But the fuel, which suppresses the immune systems of mice, also contains chemicals with unknown toxicological effects on humans. Investigators agreed to inspect two possible sources of contamination: The fuel that Navy jets sometimes dumped over the town's outskirts before landing, blown over on the wind, and the pipeline that carried 34 million gallons of fuel through Fallon annually. In the spring of 2001, officials traced the pipeline on foot and by plane, looking for black soil, distressed vegetation and other signs of a leak. Kinder Morgan injected a tracer chemical into the pipeline and dragged a sensor over its length. No leak appeared; investigators confirmed that the pipeline was sound.

In May 2001, a Reno Gazette-Journal reporter, Frank Mullen, who also walked the pipeline, challenged company claims. He found broken vents and corroded electrical stations – signs, he said, that the pipeline was poorly maintained – and spoke with Scott Meihack, the elementary school principal, who told him that teachers reported "occasional fuel smells." Kinder Morgan representatives visited Meihack and decided the odor came from a school bus lot. This struck Mullen as suspicious. "They said the pipe never leaked in 50 years since they put it in," he told me. "Then you ask a retired pipeline guy, and he says, 'Yes, they freaking leak.' Gas tanks leak. What about a tank that's 63 miles long, welded every few yards, in the most alkali ground in the United States?"

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