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Steven J. Klearman
Steven J. Klearman
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Fallon Nevada's Arsenic Problem

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In Fallon, Nevada (about an hour and a half away from Reno) residents have been experiencing high numbers of cancer diagnoses. Although the town has a population of roughly 8,500 people, 12 children were diagnosed with leukemia over a course of approximately three years. According to the American Cancer Society approximately 1.27 percent of the population (1 in 79) will come down with the disease sometime in their lifetimes, but the median (average) age for which it is diagnosed in humans is 67. The ACS also states that in the year 2007 roughly 3,800 children will develop leukemia. Considering the number of these cases occurring in Fallon alone puts it at a small percentage of the total US population, this news is alarming local residents.

Theories abound as to the causes of the leukemia, but the most prevalent is one that states that because the Air Force base is in close proximity to the town, jet fuel and exhaust fumes are causing the leukemia. Benzene has been shown to be a major cause of leukemia and it is commonly found in the fuels that jets use to fly.

Another theory is based upon the city’s arsenic tainted water supply. Fallon’s water supply exceeded 90 parts per billion of arsenic, while exceeding a mere 50 ppb (parts per billion) has been quoted by the EPA as being dangerous. In fact, some experts believe that any level exceeding 10 ppb is dangerous. Thirty four percent of the residents of Clark County were tested with over 50 ppb of arsenic in their urine in 2003 and although both the Air Force base and the city of Fallon have taken steps to reduce the amount of arsenic in the water supply, the damage from the high levels (100+ ppb) that were previously recorded still remains.

According to the EPA, “On November 23, 1999, EPA Region 9 issued a Findings and Notice of Violation stating that the City of Fallon was in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act for exceeding the arsenic maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 50 ppb from 1977 to present. On August 30, 2000, Fallon received an Administrative Order requiring compliance with the arsenic MCL by September 15, 2003. This Administrative Order was replaced by a subsequent Administrative Order on August 28, 2002 that extended the deadline to April 15, 2004.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that arsenic exposure has not been linked to leukemia in adults or children. However, the Centers state that arsenic poisoning is still capable of causing cancer, even if inhaled.

Even though cancer is possible and in fact highly probable considering the possibility of exposure to arsenic, benzene or even tungsten that is occurring in Fallon, leukemia is harder to track. Part of the difficulty in tracing down a specific cause of leukemia lays in tracing down the causative agent. But Fallon itself presents something of a mystery because military families are exposed to the same substances that civilians are exposed to. Being more mobile makes the source of military families’ exposure more difficult to trace because they could have been exposed prior to their entry to Fallon. In addition, the symptoms of leukemia may not become immediately apparent because they may take months or even years to present themselves.

In addition, tracing the source of exposure for military families is more difficult for a second reason: their symptoms may not start until after they’ve relocated to a completely new area. Any doctor that a military family approaches would have to take a systematic approach to every place that the family has been and find a commonality with other leukemia patients in terms of the area of exposure to determine definitively that being in Fallon was the “smoking gun” that caused the leukemia. It is entirely possible that a child of a military family has developed leukemia and that the family won’t be aware of it for another few years. It is also possible that the same child already has leukemia and that the current doctor is looking for the causes solely in his current jurisdiction, even though the exposure actually occurred far from his office and even the town where he is practicing.

In any case, the best approach to staying healthy if you have been in Fallon for a prolonged period of time is to consult a doctor and have regular checkups. Also, if you leave Fallon it would be best if you told your current doctor that you were in Fallon. You can provide him with a copy of this blog.