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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Cleveland Cancer Cluster

Air Date: Week of

The rate of leukemia in a small, central Ohio town has hit nearly triple the expected rate. An ongoing investigation has yet to pinpoint a cause. But, health officials say the patients have one thing in common: they all attended the same school. Joe Smith reports.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
The rate of leukemia in a small central Ohio town has hit alarming proportions. Seven people in the city of Marion have been diagnosed with the disease: nearly triple the expected rate. An ongoing investigation has yet to pinpoint a cause. But health officials say the patients have one thing in common: they all attended the same school. Joe Smith reports.

(Bus engines running)

SMITH: The 900 students at Marion's River Valley High School and Middle School board buses for home. They maneuver around tiny pink and green flags that divide the school grounds in a grid. State investigators searched the checkerboard layout above and below ground for clues to the leukemia outbreak. River Valley Superintendent Dr. David Kirkton has a personal stake in this search: his 2 sons recently graduated from the school.

KIRKTON: Of course, the Ohio Department of Health has been with us, the Ohio EPA has been testing here, the Corps of Army Engineers has been testing here. So far, they have found nothing.

SMITH: The school buildings sit on land once used as a German prisoner of war camp and an Army depot during World War II. The military brought trucks and other equipment to be repaired and repainted at the depot, and officials suspect that solvents, paints, and gases were dumped at the site. Marion's mayor, Jack Kellogg.

KELLOGG: There are a lot of people who live here that worked out here during World War II. They say yeah, we dumped stuff here, we buried it here. But nobody will tell us where these burial spots are, and by the information the government has, they do not have any locations where things were dumped. I'm not saying it wasn't dumped, but so far we have not found those spots yet.

SMITH: Two radioactive objects, a small reflector and a rock, have been found and removed from the site. But everyone agrees they weren't potent enough to cause the problem. Some residents say investigators are searching in the wrong place for the culprit.

(Water flowing)

SMITH: Marion's water flows from the Little Scioto River and a number of municipal wells near the city's industrial area. A quarter mile downstream from the water intake, signs warn not to drink, swim, or take fish from the water. The river bottom is coated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. An abandoned creosote plant is the suspected source, as well as seepage from the city's old garbage dump. The Little Scioto is considered one of the most polluted rivers in Ohio.

KREWMUHAKER: I spent the biggest share of my summer driving and looking, and I can tell you just from observations, I believe there is a serious problem.

SMITH: Kent Krewmuhaker and his wife Roxanne organized Concerned Parents of River Valley after their daughter Kim came down with leukemia in 1993. The group is pushing to find the cause of the leukemia outbreak. Mrs. Krewmuhaker says she's heard officials say the drinking water is fine because it's drawn upstream from the contaminated area.

R. KREWMUHAKER: Baloney. We've seen signs of pollution there, too. Not corridors and things like that, just bubbles that surface to the water, and then there'll be like, it looks like an oil spill. And it's polluted as that land has to be around there. Nobody'll convince me it can't get back to the drinking.

SMITH: Earlier this month, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials declared Marion's drinking water safe. The Ohio Department of Health, the lead agency in the investigation, however, has not issued its opinion about the water. Robert Indian, Chief of Chronic and Environmental Disease Surveillance for the Health Department, takes offense when he hears accusations that investigators are moving too slowly.

INDIAN: To have conducted a 30-year analysis, to have reviewed medical records, to have put together a report, to have made recommendations, to actually hammer out an environmental sampling scheme to assess the current risk, in my opinion is quite admirable. I think we've moved very fast.

SMITH: Little is known about leukemia, which attacks the T-cells in bone marrow. Michael Kaluhjury, a research director at the Arthur James Cancer Center at Ohio State University, says in 95% of leukemia cases the cause is unknown.

KALUHJURY: I think we have to consider exposure to radiation has clearly been shown through the tragedies of Hiroshima and other nuclear accidents to be a causative agent. And likewise exposures to certain solvents, particularly benzene, is associated with a much higher incidence of acute myeloid leukemia. Having said that, everything else becomes very, neither black nor white but very gray.

SMITH: As for the Krewmuhakers, they say they won't rest until they get answers. They never want another family to go through what they have, since their daughter's leukemia diagnosis 4 years ago. For Living on Earth, I'm Joe Smith in Columbus.



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