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Cyclic Hotline
27th Jan 2002, 02:07
Jet fuel studied in Sierra Vista leukemia


Frustrated by the state's failure to investigate the rate of childhood leukemia cases in Sierra Vista, two University of Arizona scientists are launching their own independent probe of the problem.

The scientists - pediatric research professor Mark Witten and microbiology and immunology professor David Harris - are operating under the controversial theory that exposure to toxic jet fuel from military flights in the area is a prime suspect in the Sierra Vista outbreak, as well as others around the country.

The small city is home to the U.S. Army's Fort Huachuca and Libby Army Airfield.

"We cannot prove that exposure to jet fuel particulates will induce cancer in humans, but we know it does in animals," said Witten, who has studied the toxic effects of jet fuel for the past decade. Witten recently appeared on CBS-TV's "60 Minutes II" to discuss his suspicions that it may be a factor in an even larger childhood leukemia cluster in Fallon, Nev., a major military fighter jet training site.

"I do think jet fuel is a factor in many leukemia clusters in the U.S. - exposure to it is the one thing they all have in common. But I don't have the scientific proof yet," he said.

However, stressing that no cause of leukemia has ever been confirmed, UA pediatric oncologist John Hutter - who treats most of the stricken Sierra Vista children - warned against frightening parents without proof.

"We have to be very careful at this point about alarming people about what may or may not be real in the Sierra Vista situation," he said. "The fact is we don't have the answers yet."

What doctors do know is that the number of childhood leukemia cases in that small military town in southeastern Arizona has now jumped to eight in the last five years, pushing the rate to more than double the national average. The latest case was diagnosed just last month, Hutter confirmed.

But even that development has failed to jump-start a stalled state investigation of the problem, admit state health officials, who had pledged in September to begin the study.

Plans to interview the affected families, map their locations and gather information on possible toxic exposures in Sierra Vista have fallen through in the five months since the leukemia cases first became public knowledge and state investigators promised to act.

"The state has done no testing, has done nothing - they haven't even been in Sierra Vista," said Witten. "So we decided, OK, we will form our own scientific team and do our own study, and see if we can find out anything that may be putting children at risk here.

"We think it's time to be proactive, and we want to do the highest quality science. That's the bottom line."

Witten, who will be working with microbiology and immunology professor Harris and University of New Mexico geneticist Karen Montgomery, said the team will apply for funding grants from the National Cancer Institute (news - web sites) and environmental groups to support the Sierra Vista study.

The three researchers announced their plans at a recent public meeting held in Sierra Vista to discuss the leukemia situation. Although no members of the leukemia-stricken families attended the meeting, a Sierra Vista man recently diagnosed with the disease said there are more cases there than have been so far disclosed.

"I think the child cases are closer to 10 by now, and I know of at least two adults who have recently died of it," said Mark Tiefel, 53, whose own leukemia was confirmed in late November. He has lived in Sierra Vista for three years.

"I know it's going to be very hard to tie all this together, but I would at least like to see someone try. Maybe we can keep this from happening to more people here."

Tiefel said he had "no idea" what may be triggering leukemia in Sierra Vista.

"I really don't know if it could be jet fuel. I know the planes fly over all the time - there are a lot of touch-and-gos going on at the fort. But I have no way of knowing if that has anything to do with it."

Aware of the concerns raised over jet fuel, Fort Huachuca officials released a statement on the issue late Friday afternoon.

"The health and safety of our military and civilian community is of great concern to us," the statement read. "Fort Huachuca is prepared to provide assistance as needed to support the research of leukemia cases."

Some 120,000 military "air movements" - touch-and-go takeoffs and landings, unmanned aerial vehicle flights, and other aircraft flying into the Fort Huachuca airspace - occur there annually, said Fort spokeswomen Tanja Linton.

While acknowledging little has been done so far to move the investigation along, state health officials denied it has been scrapped.

"Part of the problem is that back in September, we asked the (state) Department of Environmental Quality to look at the data they have in Sierra Vista and Cochise County - to tell us what's there, if there's anything we should be concerned about - and report back to us, and we're still waiting and waiting for that report," said Dr. Tim Flood, medical director of the Arizona Cancer Registry, who has investigated past cancer clusters in Arizona, and who will head any probe in Sierra Vista.

But Flood said he had not since pushed for the DEQ report, nor has he contacted any of the Sierra Vista families.

"If the folks there are interested in giving us their residential histories, then they should call us. So far, nobody has done that," he said. He then said Hutter - the UA oncologist for most of the families - this week volunteered to conduct the family interviews.

"But from the public health standpoint, we don't have lots to offer after that that's useful," Flood said. "We don't have the resources to do any further work on this. We really can't do any exposure assessments. That's where the Witten study may be helpful, by taking a research approach to this.

"But from my past experience, after looking into several other small clusters, they never produced any answers."

Flood did say he has requested reports from the state of Nevada and from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (news - web sites) on the investigation of the Fallon leukemia cluster.

"That is being extensively investigated and we want to know what they find," he said. "That could change our direction. It may affect our approach."

Hutter confirmed that he has started contacting the Sierra Vista families, who remain unidentified due to patient confidentiality. He has mailed questionnaires asking for their detailed residential histories, as far back as two years before the children's births.

"We know the period from exposure to a carcinogen to development of cancer can be years, so we want to go as far back with these children as we can," he said.