updated 2/24/2004 8:48:39 AM ET 2004-02-24T13:48:39

For three years, scientists prodded the dust, dirt and water in this rural community and tested the blood of dozens of its residents — all in hopes of uncovering why children were developing leukemia.

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Yet despite the work, scientists revealed Monday that they haven’t been able to determine what caused the disease that has sickened 16 children and killed three since 1997.

“We were hoping we’d get more information here,” said Dr. Malcolm Smith of the National Cancer Institute. “The studies didn’t do that — but they certainly told us a great deal about what does not exist as health threats to the community.”

Families disappointed
The scientists’ final report, presented at a meeting attended by more than 100 people, was a disappointment for families of children afflicted by the cancer. But researchers said the massive amount of data they compiled should help in future efforts to determine the source of the disease.

“All of us would love to be able to identify what causes childhood leukemia,” added Dr. Thomas Sinks of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We simply can’t afford to be disappointed every time we fail.”

Brenda Gross, whose son Dustin, now 8, survived the Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia that struck when he was a 3-year-old, said she wasn’t surprised by the final report. But she wishes more work was done.

“I’m disappointed they are bringing this to a close,” Gross said. “They had an opportunity to really jump in ... and see what they could find. I’m disappointed that more research wasn’t done.”

Fallon Mayor Ken Tedford noted that health officials warned in advance that an answer might not be found. For decades, the CDC has largely avoided cluster investigations, considering them futile.

But Tedford said the extensive studies “put our town under the microscope for more than two years. We probably know more about our environment than any other community in America.”

Pieces to the puzzle
Since 1997, 16 children were diagnosed with cancer and three died in this farming community of 8,300 some 60 miles southeast of Reno. In a town the size of Fallon, an agricultural community that’s also home to Fallon Naval Air Station, just one case of childhood leukemia would be expected in five years.

While the final report may not satisfy Fallon residents, researchers have “added some pieces to the puzzle,” said Dr. Randall Todd, the state epidemiologist. “So when it’s all put together someday, it will tell us what causes leukemia to manifest in clusters like this.”

The studies turned up no link to high levels of naturally occurring arsenic in Fallon’s water supply, a pipeline carrying jet fuel to the Navy base, local pesticide spraying, high tungsten levels, or an underground nuclear test conducted 30 miles away about 40 years ago.

During the 1960s and ’70s, the CDC investigated 108 cancer clusters around the United States, most of them childhood leukemia. In the end, they found no link and the source of such cancer outbreaks has remained as much a mystery as ever.

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