Cancer has darkened Sue Brigham’s door so many times, she wonders if bad luck runs through her family’s veins.
There was the infiltrating ductal carcinoma her mom fought in 1998, the total prostatectomy her dad endured, and the stage 3 ovarian cancer that her sister survived with surgery and chemo. Her niece was diagnosed with melanoma. Recently, her daughter Jen, 36, was diagnosed with and treated for retroperitoneal liposarcoma, a rare, slow-growing cancer in the stomach.
Or maybe it’s not just bad luck.
Brigham grew up in Simi Valley with her parents and siblings near the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, a remote, 2,900-acre site developed in the 1940s where rocket engines had been tested and nuclear research had been conducted. In 1989, the Department of Energy released a report admitting that a partial meltdown of a sodium reactor had occurred in 1959.
“I resided in the Chatsworth/Canoga Park area during my pregnancy with her and then moved back to Simi Valley for her birth and continued to reside there until 1980,” Brigham, an oncology nurse, said recently. “Something was happening, but no one wants to listen.”
For decades there has been talk and people have always wondered about the depth of contamination within the Santa Susana Field Laboratory property and surrounding area. They have asked, when stories of cancer among residents in West Hills, Chatsworth and Simi Valley arise, whether the water in the ground and the air they breathe has made them sick.
There have been some studies conducted on those who once worked at the site as well as research on rates of thyroid cancer among residents who live up to five miles away. Those studies offered some answers and even monetary compensation to some victims who sued.
Boeing, which now owns a majority of the land and is under a consent order to clean up the property, denies that there is a connection between the contamination and health problems of nearby residents.
“Numerous health studies have determined there are no cancer clusters near the site and it does not pose a risk to employees, visitors or the community,” said Boeing spokeswoman Kamara Sams.
But some hope legislation introduced earlier this year will help communities determine whether there is a connection between “clusters” of cancer, birth defects and other diseases, and contaminants in the surrounding environment. Called the Strengthening Protections for Children and Communities from Disease Clusters Act (S. 50), the legislation was introduced by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, and Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho.
The legislation, to be heard this summer, is supported by Trevor’s Trek Foundation, which was started by Charlie Smith, Susan Rosser and Trevor Schaefer, who survived after being diagnosed with brain cancer at the age of 13. He and his family lived in a former milling and mining town in Idaho.
Schaefer said he and his family have worked to raise awareness of disease clusters and their possible links to toxins in the environment, to assist communities.
“When I was diagnosed, my entire world turned around, from thinking about friends and school and sports to suddenly thinking about death,” said Schaefer, now 22. “I got sick because of the negligence of our government.”
Schaefer said those who believe their illness is linked to their community can leave their story on the Trevor’s Trek Foundation website.
“This gives the communities a voice at the table,” said Schaefer, who has also released a book called “The Boy on the Lake.” The
book is about his survival from brain cancer as well as how the experience pushed him to fight for children whose illnesses may have developed from environmental causes.
“When the same disease impacts a family, neighborhood or community, people have a right to know if there is a common factor or related cause,” Boxer said in a statement. “I am pleased to introduce this bipartisan legislation that will help our communities investigate and address devastating disease clusters as quickly as possible.”
The Santa Susana Field Lab was developed in the late 1940s for rocket-engine tests and nuclear energy research by private-sector and government scientists from Rocketdyne, the Department of Energy and NASA, among others.
The work left contamination in some parts of the area, in soil and groundwater, specifically perchlorate and dioxin. Site owners and environmental regulators still don’t know the full extent of the soil and groundwater contamination but have been mandated by state law to clean up the land to strict levels.
But the uncertainty has led many who live around the area to suspect that their cancer is related to Santa Susana.
In 2005, Boeing reached a settlement with more than 100 neighbors of the Santa Susana Field Lab, who had said they developed cancer and other illnesses from the rocket-engine manufacturing plant. The case had been filed in 1997 and almost didn’t make it to court because a judge had said the statute of limitations had passed.
Brigham, who was not part of the suit because she never suspected a link to her family’s cancer and the field lab, said she recently tried to contact the same attorneys to handle her case, but none was interested.
In 2007, state Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, asked the California Department of Public Health to investigate the possibility of a cancer cluster after she learned that several children in the area had been diagnosed with retinoblastoma – a rare and aggressive eye cancer found in children younger than 5 years old. It can begin growing while a child is in the womb.
But researchers with the state were at odds with another epidemiologist’s findings.
Department of Public Health analysts said they studied the 11 cases of retinoblastoma in children from West Hills over eight years within 10 miles of the field lab and found “no statistically significant excess of retinoblastoma.” They suggested that the cases were caused by genetics, not environmental issues.
But epidemiologist Hal Morgenstern, who has studied cancer rates around the field lab, said the state analysis was too broad to rule out pollution as a possible cause.
Morgenstern is now a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. In a state study in the 1990s, he found higher rates of some cancers among Santa Susana Field Lab workers. He emphasized his findings in a letter written to the state, in defense of his work after Boeing tried to say there were no significant findings.
From 1988 through 1995, Morgenstern’s researchers found that the incidence rate was more than 60 percent greater among residents living within 2 miles of SSFL than among residents living within 5 miles for thyroid, upper digestive tract, bladder, and blood and lymph tissue cancers.
They found similar rates for thyroid cancer when they separately studied the period of 1996-2002.
“The magnitude and consistency of the thyroid finding for both periods is especially provocative because of evidence from other studies linking thyroid cancer with environmental exposures originating at SSFL and found in the surrounding communities,” he wrote.
But despite those findings, Morgenstern said recently that those studies may not help Brigham or others who have wondered if their cancers are related to Santa Susana.
“Unfortunately, despite certain positive findings, results from those studies cannot answer Sue’s question about cancers in her family,” Morgenstern said in an email. “We cannot say whether those cancers were caused by contamination originating at SSFL. In fact, that type of inference is beyond the scope of epidemiologic research, which examines statistical associations in populations.”
But questions surrounding contamination and rates of cancer persist.
A study released in November found that women in the east Ventura County communities of Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, and western Los Angeles County had invasive cancer rates of 10 percent to 20 percent higher than the rest of California. The study was released by the California Breast Cancer Mapping Project.
Simi Valley Mayor Bob Huber was so concerned he sent a letter to the state’s Department of Toxic Substances. He received a response in April.
“To date, we have not found evidence of off-site contamination from SSFL that would pose a risk to human health or the environment,” wrote Stewart Black, a deputy director at the DTSC.
But the results from the California Breast Cancer Mapping Project don’t surprise Bonnie Klea, a West Hills resident who worked as a secretary for Atomics International, located at SSFL, from 1963 to 1971. She was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1995.
“I’ve lived in my house for 42 years,” Klea said. “When I was diagnosed, I went door to door and every single house on my street had at least two generations of cancer.”
Klea, who spearheaded an effort to get the federal government to compensate those who worked at the field lab, said she doesn’t believe Boxer’s legislation will help, but that residents should remain vigilant, ask doctors questions, and record their stories.
In the meantime, Brigham said her daughter has undergone surgery three times and recently has completed six rounds of chemotherapy. Because of the rareness of this form of cancer and the lack of blood tests to follow it, she is required to undergo MRIs every three months.
No attorney will take her case, she said.
“When this started with my daughter two years ago, I knew nothing about what was going on with Rocketdyne,” said Brigham, who now lives in San Luis Obispo. “As an oncology nurse, I’ve never heard of her kind of cancer. But it’s not about me. It’s about Rocketdyne taking responsibility.”
By: Susan Abram, Staff Writer