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Published: Sunday, 2/1/2009

Questions outweigh clues to cancer cluster in Clyde

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Listen to 10-year-old Tanner Hisey talk and you might forget he's fighting for his life.

He's cute. He's clever. He's spunky.

His eyes sparkle and his face blushes as he describes a little girl who's sweet on him as "my friend, who happens to be a girl." The line is repeated for the benefit of his father, Dave Hisey, who's sitting nearby.

Lest there be any confusion, Tanner wants Dad to know he agrees with him that 10-year-olds are too young to be boyfriend and girlfriend.

Parents are used to seeing their kids become victims of puppy love at such a tender age.

Not victims of leukemia.

The Hiseys are from Clyde, Ohio. To them, Clyde is a slice of small-town America - a place they're proud to call home.

But it's also a town of 6,000 people with a really big problem right now, the latest spot in northwest Ohio being investigated for a cancer cluster.


Alexa Brown, left, of Clyde, Ohio, participates in an art class at Green Springs School. The 10-year-old was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2006. The tumor was removed, but cancer reappeared in her spine in May. Alexa Brown, left, of Clyde, Ohio, participates in an art class at Green Springs School. The 10-year-old was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2006. The tumor was removed, but cancer reappeared in her spine in May.
THE BLADE/JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge | Buy This Photo

For reasons unknown, Clyde and Sandusky County's adjacent Green Creek, Riley, and York townships have a childhood cancer rate that the Ohio Department of Health considers to be off the charts.

Twenty children - including Tanner and his older sister, Tyler, 15 - have been diagnosed with cancer since 2001. That's "strikingly high" for that area, according to Robert Indian, chief of the Ohio Department of Health's comprehensive cancer control program.

An environmental trigger is thought to be the cause. But neither the state health department, the Sandusky County Health Department, nor the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency knows what it is.

All they know is there is a problem - a potentially deadly problem - that needs to be addressed before more kids go down the same path Tanner is going.

From his hospital bed at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, Tanner swirls his spoon in a bowl of homemade beef soup his little sister, Sierra, 7, made for him to eat at the hospital.

He's not hungry. His latest round of chemotherapy began the night before. The cocktail of anti-cancer drugs continues to enter him intravenously, robbing him of his appetite. Dad urges him to keep trying to eat.

Next to Tanner is a laptop computer and two of his favorite DVDs, Night at the Museum and a computer-enhanced documentary about dinosaurs.

He talks about how he loves to play football, basketball, and baseball. He mentions that his favorite subjects in school are gym and math, that he likes to play checkers, likes to play golf, and - above all - loves to fish. He also beams about the deer he bagged while hunting with Dad.

Tanner has a matter-of-fact answer when asked why he likes sports and outdoor activities so much.

"Because I'm a really active guy," he said.

Tanner's father, who manages Clyde's largest grocery store, also managed his son's baseball team last year. He said Tanner was diagnosed with leukemia after appearing unusually fatigued and a little clumsy at the end of the season.

In a recent interview, Mr. Hisey choked on his words while describing the emotional roller-coaster ride his family has endured because of cancer - how Tanner's first round of chemotherapy in the fall was so rough on the boy that he cried for morphine and had some rectal bleeding.

Tanner's older sister, Tyler, is in remission from another form of leukemia she was diagnosed with in February, 2006.

Tyler gave her little brother some advice on how to get through the chemotherapy.

"She says it's not that bad. Forget that you're even getting chemo. That's pretty much about it," Tanner said.

Now, the family is worried about little Sierra.

The 7-year-old cries at night, wondering if she's next.

"She's such a cutie," Tanner says, vowing to hang tough for her. "I don't want to see her cry."

The lack of a focal point in the Clyde investigation frustrates a lot of people, including Mr. Hisey.

Last month, the Ohio EPA began tracking airborne chemicals with several monitors in the Clyde area.

Shannon Nabors, chief of the Ohio EPA's northwest district office in Bowling Green, said data will likely be collected for months before her agency is ready to meet again with Clyde residents.

"It's very hard for us to know where to begin and where to focus," Ms. Nabors said. "It is a bit of a shot in the dark right now We haven't had any red flags to send us down one path or the other."

That's unsettling to Mr. Hisey. He said he is hard-wired to be a problem-solver at work and at home.

"I have a 7-year-old daughter who cries thinking she is going to be next," Mr. Hisey said. "I try reassuring her, but I can't. Secretly, I'm scared she's going to get it too."

Another resident of Clyde who wants answers is Warren Brown, the Sandusky County clerk of courts.

He speaks with the tone of a frustrated parent - not a member of officialdom - when asked about Clyde's childhood cancer rate.

His daughter, Alexa, also 10, is the youngest of his four children. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2006. The tumor was removed, but cancer reappeared in her spine in May.

"I want an answer. And to be perfectly honest with you, I want someone to blame," Mr. Brown said. "I want to be able to say to someone: 'You did this. Now, you've got to fix this so it doesn't happen to anyone else.'•"

But will that day ever come?

Unlike Marion, Ohio, where the state health department determined a little more than a decade ago that an usually high rate of leukemia existed among those who attended the former River Valley Middle School complex, Clyde has no focal point.

No common denominator.

Sure, theories abound - the disposal practices of local industry, the quality of dirt used to landscape subdivisions, the cleanliness of tap water, even the additional traffic on local roads after tolls were raised on the Ohio Turnpike. But, for now, they're all just theories.

The River Valley Middle School complex was built on top of a World War II military dump filled with toxic chemicals. It bordered an industrial park two miles east of Marion.

Benzene and high levels of radiation - two of the only things known to trigger leukemia, a somewhat rare form of cancer - were found on or near the school complex. Yet nobody ever went on the record saying that either caused its former students to get leukemia.

The facility was torn down and relocated a few years ago, largely with the help of government money. The school district cited the age of the facility and the need for more space. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which directed the investigation, never admitted anything.

"I'm pretty bitter about the whole thing," said Roxanne Krumanaker, a Marion woman whose daughter, Kim Tolnar, a 1983 River Valley graduate, survived a harrowing ordeal with leukemia.

The Krumanakers believe their daughter, now an advertising representative for a Columbus TV station, was exposed to toxic waste while running cross- country at the complex. They never understood at the time why the field was always wet, even after days without rain.

"The whole situation enters my mind at some point every day. It's never out of my mind. The story didn't get out there. The truth," Mrs. Krumanaker said.

She said residents grew leery of the Corps of Engineers, the state health department, and the Ohio EPA, accusing them of reshaping the investigation because of political pressures.

They weren't alone.

The Marion case, the largest environmental investigation in Ohio's history, led to the first whistleblower case filed by an Ohio EPA employee.

Thomas Phalen, Jr., the administrative law judge who heard it, said in a 106-page ruling in 2000 that the Ohio EPA's former director, Don Schregardus, appeared more interested in playing office politics than protecting public health.

Mr. Schregardus, who led the agency when U.S. Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) served as Ohio's governor, reassigned Marion site investigator Paul Jayko in the summer of 1998. An Ohio EPA supervisor, Bruce Dunlavy, testified in a Perrysburg courtroom on July 30, 1999, that the agency wanted Mr. Jayko silenced because he was a "potential pipeline to the media in the Marion case."

Mr. Jayko was reinstated and awarded a $138,000 settlement that included a posted apology to him in Ohio EPA offices.

Mrs. Krumanaker said she believes state and federal officials "lied, cheated, and fudged numbers" in that investigation.

Tensions rose when her citizens' group hosted a high-profile activist, Lois Gibbs, to speak in Marion.

Ms. Gibbs led the fight behind the historic 1970s Love Canal investigation in New York, where toxic chemicals from a dump forced the evacuation of numerous households in the Niagara Falls area. It also led to the U.S. EPA's Superfund program that Congress established for quicker cleanups of such dumps.

Some Marion residents claimed their employers warned them to stay away from Ms. Gibbs' speech.

Hours before it was delivered, a bullet whizzed past Mrs. Krumanaker's husband, Kent, while he was mowing grass on his riding lawn mower. Authorities never made an arrest, saying they weren't sure if the unidentified shooter might actually have been taking aim at groundhogs from along U.S. 23.

Ms. Gibbs, who founded the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice in Falls Church, Va., after leaving her home in upstate New York, told The Blade last month that cancer clusters are frustrating enough when people think they've homed in on the cause.

"But when you don't know, it's got to be twice as frustrating," Ms. Gibbs said. "The real anger comes if they find the source and it's related to a corporation. Ohio government in particular is protective of its corporations."

Clyde isn't at the stage yet of having anyone to blame.

Right now, there isn't even a common denominator among the cancer victims. The children have gone to different schools and grown up in different neighborhoods. Many of the families don't know each other. The kids have developed a variety of cancers and have different sources of drinking water.

Cancer is a "horribly complex disease" that is hard to pin down even when investigators believe they have a strong lead on evidence, Mr. Indian said.

"I've been brutally honest with them and told them we may not ever have an answer," he said.

Ohio EPA Director Chris Korleski told families in December that he has instructed his staff to make the Clyde investigation its No. 1 priority. The agency director said it's easy to become cynical and promised to do his best to find an answer. He said he can empathize with them because he and his wife nearly lost their 11-year-old daughter to another type of sickness when she was 2.

The Hiseys and the Browns know the Clyde investigation is in its fledgling stage.

They made it clear they're putting their faith in state health and state environmental regulators, saying the two health departments and state EPA seem determined about getting to the root of Clyde's cancer outbreak.

They want to give them a chance to do their jobs.

Matt Hofelich's daughter, Holly, 14, was among Clyde's first to be diagnosed in the recent outbreak of childhood cancers. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2001.

"I hope they give it 110 percent," he said. "The only common denominator, I think, is air. I hope some of this [Ohio EPA air] testing will show something."

Mr. Hofelich, who manages the Fremont field office of Ohio State University's Agricultural Research and Development Center, said he wants an answer to keep other families from experiencing childhood cancer.

"Until you experience it firsthand, you don't truly grasp the gravity of the situation," he said.

Steve Keller, Sr., a retired Oak Harbor High School basketball coach and teacher, lost his grandson, Cole Keller, to cancer on April 7, 2007. The boy, who lived in Clyde, had a brain tumor and died two days before his 6th birthday.

Cole's cancer seemingly came from nowhere in 2005. Family members remarked how he had scored three goals in a soccer game shortly before being diagnosed.

"Most cancer victims are treated for something else before they [the doctors] find out what it is," Mr. Keller said.

Parents lose valuable time that way. They also lose valuable time waiting for the investigation to be done.

Mr. Indian said officials are trying to find an answer quickly. "The difficulty is we've got a number of children with a very life-threatening disease, who are fighting for their lives," he said.

A focal point gives people something to rally around. But not necessarily the answers they want.

A group of Tiffin residents learned that in 2002, when they were convinced the city's dormant landfill on County Road 90 was leaking toxic chemicals. They thought it explained more than 100 cancers within seven square miles of the dump, in Eden and Seneca townships.

State health officials disagreed. Mr. Indian told Tiffin residents that year - after studying cases diagnosed between 1996 and 1999 - that there was "absolutely nothing there that is significantly higher than we expect to see."

The explanation never sat well with Bob Seifert, whose wife, Charlotte, died of breast cancer in 2000.

"You can't fight the government. We were pushing pretty heavy," Mr. Seifert said. "We just decided we don't have the money to tackle this kind of stuff. Lawyers aren't cheap."

Bobbie Welter said she and others who blamed the Tiffin landfill "kind of got the rug pulled out from under us" by the state's report.

"We ran into a stone wall. It just wore us down. I felt we were beating our head against a wall and only getting a headache out of it," she said.

Mrs. Welter said she thought it was odd her daughter, Patricia Cartwright, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995 at age 29. She said her family had no history of that disease.

"You just have to scratch your head. We're not around factories that have some toxic emissions. The groundwater has been a concern," Mrs. Welter said.

Cancer clusters are hard to pinpoint, especially among adults. People become more susceptible the older they get, because of a combination of lifestyle choices, exposure to multiple triggers, movement around the country, and their genetic makeup.

Even when there's enough evidence to convince the state that a cancer cluster exists, that doesn't mean it was caused by an environmental problem.

Take North Toledo's Lagrange Street area. After studying nearly 10,000 people who lived there in 2005, the state health department concluded that a high rate of lung cancer existed there.

Mr. Indian, while addressing 115 public health officials from northwest Ohio on March 10, 2006, said one of North Toledo's oldest working-class neighborhoods either had a bad smoking habit or had been exposed to a cancer-causing industrial pollutant. He since has said that smoking was likely the cause.

One of three women and one of two men get some form of cancer sometime during their lives, according to the National Cancer Institute.

"It is indeed the scourge of the 21st century," Mr. Indian said, adding that it is second only to heart disease as a cause of death.

But as Mr. Indian has said, most are attributable to lifestyle. That includes 35 percent blamed on diet and 30 percent on smoking.

None of that, he agreed, excuses what's happening in Clyde.

Until an answer is found, there could be more boys like Tanner Hisey trying to act tough so their little sisters don't get scared.

Tanner said he draws his inspiration in part from a picture of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky character that he drew himself. Next to it are two words: "Be Strong."

The 10-year-old doesn't want to let his guard down, even in front of his father.

As Mr. Hisey fumbled for words, trying to explain how his family has coped with its two childhood cancers, Tanner cut him off with an observation few children his age usually make about their parents.

"Dad," he told him, "you get too emotional."

Contact Tom Henry at:

thenry@theblade.com

or 419-724-6079.



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