“I’m sorry, but that’s not possible,” Melissa Bumstead said to another patient’s mother whom she met in a hospital hallway. “Childhood cancer is really rare. I don’t think it’s possible that we could live so close to each other.”
But the other mom had recognized Bumstead from a park where both their children played. They’d been moms at the park at the same time, and now they were moms of kids with rare cancers, in the same hospital, at the same time.
In 2014, at age 4, Bumstead’s daughter was diagnosed with a rare leukemia called PH+ALL. After more than 100 days’ hospitalization, two years of treatments, including bone marrow transplant, chemotherapy, radiation — and then a relapse — she is now doing well.
But hers was not the only rare cancer in the neighborhood. A Simi Valley girl, Hazel, age 7, died in March 2018 of a brain tumor called neuroblastoma. Bailey, 2, also died of neuroblastoma, in 2015. Bumstead told the Ventura County Reporter that Bailey’s mother had lived in the area during the first trimester of her pregnancy. Another girl, whose mother also lived locally during her first trimester, died of neuroblastoma at age 4 in 2014. With 800 annual cases out of 73 million U.S. children, a child has a .001 percent chance of being diagnosed with neuroblastoma.
Bumstead said that a 9-year-old Simi Valley boy died of a brain tumor called DIPG, or diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, in 2016; a 16-year-old girl died of medullablastoma in 2013; and a 4-year-old boy died of hepatoblastoma in 2010. A 19-year-old woman who died of eye cancer lived on the same avenue Bumstead lived on. She said that one area baby now has Langerhans cell hystiocytosis, or LCH, which typically occurs in one out of 2 million children each year. A teenager has acute promyelocytic leukemia, or APL, which occurs at a rate of one in 250,000 people annually.
“Then there’s my daughter’s PH+ALL,” Bumstead said. “One in a million get it every year.”
When her daughter was bald due to undergoing treatment, people would approach Bumstead while she was out shopping. “They would see her and come up to me and say, ‘My child has cancer too,’ ” Bumstead said.
She began to wonder, “What is the statistical probability that all these cases would occur within miles of each other?”
Bumstead said that she has since met many childhood-cancer families who all lived within a 20-mile radius of the Santa Susana Field Lab, a former rocket-testing site in Simi Valley. From 1949 until it was closed in the 1990s, the 2,860-acre hilltop site was home to rocket companies conducting thousands of fuel tests, including Rocketdyne, Atomics International, Boeing and Rockwell International; and federal agencies, including NASA and the Department of Energy.
A partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor happened at SSFL in 1959, causing radioactive chemicals to drift into the air, soil and water. Employees were directed not to tell anyone about the incident, and it was not publicly disclosed for 20 years, until 1979.
“We’ve heard that this could still be a ‘normal’ anomaly,” Bumstead said, “and that if it were a ‘real’ cancer cluster that they would all be the same type of cancer. But the SSFL had dozens of different radioactive and chemical contaminants, so it makes sense to me that we’d see dozens of different cancers.”
Toxins identified as present in SSFL soil, in various reports, studies and tests over the years include cesium 137, perchlorate, plutonium-239, strontium-90, tritium and trichloroethylene, also called trichloroethene or TCE.
“Cesium-137 can remain hazardous for 600 years,” Dodge said. Radioactive cesium-137 burrows into muscle tissue to cause cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. One 2012 EPA surveyfound SSFL Cesium-137 contamination at levels up to 500 times higher than in uncontaminated soils.