By May 2009, Jennifer Dunsford had developed a database documenting dozens of cancers in children and adults throughout the neighborhood. She had also gotten together with the mothers of other sick children, including Tracy Newfield, Becky Samarripa and Kaye McCann, as well as a few concerned friends and relatives, to see how they might get to the bottom of what was going on in the Acreage. “We were moms and wives and grandmothers on a mission,” remembers Newfield, who describes herself as both “this little housewife” and—as she would come to see herself over the years of struggle that followed—someone who, if necessary, could become “your worst enemy.”
“The epidemiological tools are too crude,” explains Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who has been involved in dozens of investigations into possible disease clusters in his career. Given the expense and labor involved, health departments are often loath even to attempt to track down the causes of clusters. “They don’t walk, they run in the opposite direction of these kinds of things,” says Clapp. “If they do have to do an investigation, they have to find the funds for it or have to get the Legislature to appropriate funds. Then they have to say, ‘Well, we don’t even know that this is cause and effect’—in which case, people feel like they got nothing.”
So it’s to the credit of those who pushed for a more thorough look at the Acreage—including then-Governor Charlie Crist and Senator Bill Nelson—that an investigation into the possible causes of the cluster was launched at all. The process involved, at various points, the CDC, the state and Palm Beach County departments of health, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP). The agencies tested water from over seventy private wells and several of the canals that ran through the area, as well as soil samples from thirty-five homes, for more than 200 chemicals.
As the results of those studies trickled out, the community found itself divided into two distinct camps. One, composed primarily of families of the children stricken with cancer, focused on the fact that the research had identified several contaminants above FDEP cleanup levels, including radium-226, benzene and a variety of other commonly occurring carcinogens. Though nothing stood out as the obvious cause, they felt such findings should have prompted further testing.
The other camp focused on the good news, such as the FDEP’s pronouncement that the local drinking water was “generally good,” as the letter accompanying the water-testing results put it, reassuring residents that “in general, residential property in the Acreage is safe for families to enjoy outside activities in their yards.”
Without a clear culprit for the cancers, some residents began blaming the families of the sick for the crisis. Tracy Newfield, who had been vocal in asking for an investigation, started receiving prank calls about the cluster and had her mailbox knocked over several times. Someone threw a rock at her house, breaking her glass porch light.
The one kind of contamination that distinguished the Acreage, according to Hatfield, was ionizing radiation, which was not just an established cause of brain cancer but the byproduct of local industry.
To the attorneys’ assertion that Pratt & Whitney was the only possible source of the radiation, Pratt’s lawyers replied that it could have come from other sources, such as the Chernobyl disaster, through which nuclear radiation “has been spread world-wide.”
There are striking similarities with what has happened in Fukushima and elsewhere: the difficulty of proving causal relationships and the divisions caused within families and within communities.