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Law firm won millions against Monsanto. Now it’s looking into Ripon cancer cases

Rex Reyes (center) is pictured Wednesday afternoon April 10, 2019 with his 6-year-old twins Elijah (left) and Noah at their home in Ripon, Calif. Elijah was treated for leukemia when he was 4.
Rex Reyes (center) is pictured Wednesday afternoon April 10, 2019 with his 6-year-old twins Elijah (left) and Noah at their home in Ripon, Calif. Elijah was treated for leukemia when he was 4. jlee@modbee.com

Some residents concerned about cancer cases at an elementary school are putting more attention on the water in Ripon.

At a community meeting earlier this month, attorneys with the Cochran law firm of Southern California said they’re looking at the groundwater contamination under Ripon. The three attorneys spoke of a possible lawsuit similar to environmental suits that reaped massive settlements on behalf of clients.

Many residents were relieved when Sprint switched off a cell phone tower at Weston Elementary School last month after parents were alarmed by cancer cases among students and school employees. Parents thought radio frequency waves from the tower were a possible cause.

Rex Reyes, whose family lives near Weston school, heard the Cochran attorneys speak at the April 3 meeting. Reyes’ son Elijah came down with fevers and was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 4 years old. Today, the 6-year-old Elijah, who is in remission, is one of five Weston students who’ve undergone cancer treatment in the past two years.

Three school employees have been stricken with cancer, and a 4-year-old boy living a block away from the school was treated for a malignant tumor last year.

“My instinct is (Elijah) got sick from the water,” Reyes said. “I wouldn’t want other families to experience this. It takes your life away.”

The Cochran firm, with offices in multiple states, has won large court settlements in lawsuits against corporations that polluted public water supplies or property with toxic chemicals.

Monsanto agreed to pay a record $700 million settlement in 2003 after the Cochran firm brought an environmental suit on behalf of residents in Anniston, Ala. The suit alleged that Anniston residents suffered from cancer, liver, heart and nervous system disorders after being exposed for years to a toxic industrial chemical.

Along with the childhood cancer cases in Ripon, residents who’ve worked recently with Cochran used an online survey to count dozens of adult cancer sufferers in the community.

The Cochran attorneys compared circumstances in Ripon to a case in Florida, where Conoco Phillips was blamed for a toxic plume that migrated from a fertilizer plant. In that case, the firm won a settlement worth tens of millions of dollars.

Ripon has dealt with a plume contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE), a carcinogen, stemming from the process of making decaffeinated coffee for decades at the former Nestle plant on Industrial Avenue, just west of Highway 99. The plant closed in 1994.

Brian Dunn, an attorney for Cochran, said the tort attorneys often learn that companies conceal information on the harmful effects of their pollution. The environmental lawsuits, he said, force them to pay large sums in order to protect the public from additional polluting.

“If we join forces then they have something they have to worry about,” Dunn told the audience.

Nestle long-term cleanup

The city of Ripon says it is committed to providing safe drinking water to residents. It has worked with Nestle on long-term cleanup of the TCE contaminants under direction of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. Rather than discuss current details of the cleanup, City Manager Kevin Werner pointed to a water quality information bulletin on the city website and referred questions to Nestle.

According to a state order issued to Nestle USA in 2006, the company used TCE as a solvent to remove caffeine in the production process at the Ripon plant from 1957 to 1970, then methylene chloride replaced TCE in the process until 1986.

Over the years, the TCE leached into the ground through spills and leaks, creating a plume under the Nestle site that spread to the west, north, east and south under the Stanislaus River. The 2006 order cited residual concentrations of TCE as high as 7,800 micrograms per liter in the shallow groundwater, some 1,500 times above the maximum allowed by safe drinking water standards.

Nothing like those levels has been found in city wells, which are supposed to meet a standard of less than 5 micrograms per liter for TCE.

The state order said other volatile organic compounds had been detected in the groundwater, including 1,2-dichlorethene and vinyl chloride.

The city and Nestle have used filters and pumping strategies to keep the TCE from contaminating city wells. According to the city’s bulletin, TCE is found in one of Ripon’s five wells supplying drinking water and, in the past two years, the levels rose close to the maximum allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency, prompting the city to shut down that well in October.

Water from city wells is mixed together in the municipal lines and distributed to customers. The well that was turned off supplied about 5 percent of Ripon’s annual drinking water, the bulletin says.

“The city is currently performing additional testing to evaluate how best to move forward with this well, ensuring we continue to provide safe and reliable drinking water,” the city says.

In a statement Thursday, Nestle did not comment on the possibility of a major lawsuit seeking damages for the contamination. The company said it has worked with Ripon to monitor and protect the drinking water supply. “In partnership with the city and other experts in water management, we have implemented a variety of coordinated cleanup and water protection measures to significantly reduce the mass of chemicals of concern.”

Nestle’s statement continued: “We are constantly working together to ensure the levels of TCE and related compounds in the municipal drinking water supply do not exceed drinking water standards.”

Reyes suggested that residents have been kept in the dark about the contamination. “(The Cochran attorneys) said the water is bad, and they know there was leakage of cancerous chemicals,” Reyes said. “They told us Nestle knows about it, the city knows about. But they did not tell the people.”

Cancer clusters

Childhood cancer is rare, representing less than 1 percent of cancer diagnoses, according to the American Cancer Society. Doctors make cancer diagnoses for about 15,000 children in the United States each year. In California, the childhood cancer rate is 175 cases per 1 million people, meaning that three cases among Ripon’s 16,000 residents would be normal.

Ripon hasn’t been flagged by experts who search data for cancer clusters in the Golden State, said Joe Wiemels, an epidemiologist who’s part of a team that looks for communities with high rates. Wiemels, a professor at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, said six childhood cases in a specific area of town sounds unusual and “you never know if there are more cases in the community.”

Catherine Metayer, a researcher with the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, said it would be difficult to explain the cancer cases among students at the Ripon school. One would need to consider the timing of the diagnoses, the different types of cancer and possible environmental factors.

While cancer clusters that get attention might involve one type of cancer and a search for a single cause, the Ripon diagnoses have included two kids with brain cancer, one case each of kidney and liver cancer, leukemia and a rare tumor in connective tissue. The three adult cases at the school were not unusual since the risk of cancer increases with aging, Metayer said.

Metayer has done research on a national increase in childhood cancer since the 1970s, with a particular focus on leukemia. The National Cancer Institute reported in 2016 about a 25 percent increase in pediatric cancer over a 40-year period, driven largely by a 35 percent rise in leukemia diagnoses.

“That tells you something must be going on in the environment that would lead to cancers in children,” Metayer said. “We don’t think it can be explained by genetic susceptibility.”

Metayer said it’s known that exposure to pesticides and use of paints and organic solvents have been associated with higher risk of childhood cancer. She said TCE has been associated with leukemia. The National Cancer Institute has drawn a link between the solvent and kidney cancer among workers based on studies in occupational settings.

Caroline Graef, who lives a block away from Weston school, said her 4-year-old son Corbin was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in the pelvic area when he was 3 years old. He underwent nine months of chemotherapy and 5 ½ weeks of radiation treatment for the rare tumor identified as rhabdomyosarcoma. Corbin has been in remission since August.

Graef said she’s more inclined to think that Ripon’s cancer cases are linked to environmental conditions rather than the cell phone tower at Weston, though she was glad it was turned off. “We live in an agricultural community with pesticides, our air quality is bad. We have terrible water in Ripon,” she said. “I think those are the factors.”

Ripon has seen cancer scares before. The Record newspaper in Stockton reported in 1998 that the state health services had identified a leukemia cluster composed of six children in Ripon diagnosed with the disease over a 9-year period. State health officials suggested the cluster was a statistical quirk.

The story quoted a school official stating that a student at Ripona School had died of leukemia and several other students had the same disease.

Cell tower fears

Some residents are still uneasy about cell towers. When a report on soil testing, finding nothing unusual in the ground at Weston School, was delivered at the Ripon Unified School District board meeting Monday, parent Kim Waldbauer expressed concern a cell tower near City Hall was 850 feet from her child’s school.

Studies have been inconclusive about the health effects of radio frequency waves from cell towers. “It should not be anywhere near any type of school,” Waldbauer said after leaving the meeting. “We don’t know what it does to children’s bodies.”

Reyes said his family was supported by members of his church during the months of medical appointments and trips to a Kaiser Permanente facility in Roseville for Elijah’s treatment. People brought meals to their home and made monetary contributions to help with expenses.

“That is how we got through it, by knowing that people are helping us,” said Reyes, who works for the postal service. “We are not alone. That is what is great about our community.”

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