January 31, 2008

Grief, Fear Touch Families Hit By Pancreatic Cancer

OROVILLE, Calif. -- Judy McInturf is making a list of the sick and the dead.

On it are old friends, her son's former co-worker, her daughter's friend, family acquaintances, their adult children. And, of course, her late husband, Haskel.

In hindsight, McInturf wonders if there could be a connection: Were her family and friends caught up in some sort of toxic web _ and if so, what's the deadly thread that connects them?

State and county health officials are asking similar questions. Soon, they'll descend upon this industrial city in central Butte County to investigate an unusual concentration of pancreatic cancer diagnoses and deaths _ 23 people in 2004-05, more than twice what would be expected. They will interview the patients still living and the families of the dead, looking for environmental clues.

It's rare for the state to go to such lengths in pursuit of a possible cancer cluster _ a signal there could be cause for alarm. It's even rarer in such cases for researchers to identify a single toxic culprit.

In the meantime, McInturf and dozens of other Oroville-area residents are left to worry and wonder. In a city with a history of toxic contamination and three shuttered businesses at some point designated federal Superfund sites, there is plenty to consider.

Sitting in the cozy living room of the adobe home she shared with her husband for more than 50 years, Judy McInturf ticks off the names.

Only some of them are reflected among the 23 pancreatic cancer cases logged in 2004 and 2005 on the California cancer registry. Others on her list were diagnosed before or after the spike.

There was her husband _ friends called him Hack _ who died in January 2006, at age 77, after a career as a wood shop teacher and two terms as a Butte County supervisor. There was Hack's friend, Delmas Whittier, a former tree faller, dead in 2007 at age 72; and fishing buddy Ray Gregory, who died in 2006 at age 78.

There was Whittier's high school friend, Pat Henley, dead in 2006 at 71; and Ron Bortz, whose son once rented a home from McInturf. He died in 2004, at age 69. Longtime Oroville resident Roberta Tennigkeit, 75, was diagnosed in 2006 and is in the final stages of the disease.

Judy McInturf's list also includes younger men and women, like firefighter Marlon Jones, who worked with her son at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. He died at age 47 in 2005. There was her daughter's friend, Pam Davis, 51, diagnosed in 2004. She's back at work as a school secretary after surgeries to remove her stomach, spleen and parts of her pancreas and liver. Teri Witzsche, who grew up two blocks from Davis, died in September at age 50.

Beyond the circle of family and neighbors was Dave Sarey, an asphalt contractor who once worked for the Whittier family and succumbed at age 59 in 2006. There was Michael Ann Rossi, 63, a friend of Davis who, despite a poor prognosis, continues her work as an education consultant in Butte County.

"And this is just the people I know," said McInturf. "It's mind-boggling. How many are out there I don't know?"

Besides sharing a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, the people on McInturf's list at some point all lived in the greater Oroville area, which takes in about 55,000 residents.

Many worked in the shadow of Koppers Industries Inc., a now-shuttered wood treatment facility a quarter-mile south of Oroville's city limits.

Contamination from the plant was noted as early as 1973, when the pesticide pentachlorophenol (PCP) was discovered in groundwater underneath the 40-acre site and nearby residential wells. In addition to PCP, chemicals detected included benzene, copper, chromium and arsenic. The plant was designated a Superfund site in 1984 by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

After a 1987 fire, concerns were raised about potentially dangerous exposure to dioxins, highly toxic industrial byproducts, which were found in high concentrations in the soil. The plant was closed in March 2001.

The state launched its initial probe in May after an anonymous Oroville woman reported she had lost a friend to pancreatic cancer and knew of others in the area who had it. Seventy-five percent of patients with the illness die within a year of diagnosis; fewer than 4 percent survive five years.

Researchers plan to visit with patients and their families, asking detailed questions about their habits, livelihoods, hobbies, health histories and any other detail that could identify a possible environmental link.

"It will be a process of compiling answers, putting them into a database, and seeing what we can come up with," said Dr. Bonnie Sorensen, who oversees the cancer registry for the state Department of Public Health.

Like the other Oroville patients and their families, McInturf welcomes the state's inquiry.

"If there is something that seems to be a problem here, heavens, let's find it," said McInturf, 74.

Hack McInturf hauled logs in and out of the Koppers treatment plant in his early 20s, before he became a high school wood shop teacher.

"This was a revolutionary way to preserve wood," Judy McInturf said. "It was wonderful because it would (make the wood) last forever."

Back then, Judy said, they didn't consider the potential hazards associated with preservatives like arsenic and creosote. The region was dotted with industries such as gold mines and sawmills, also now considered environmentally risky.

Hack McInturf's fishing buddy, Ray Gregory, who lived just outside Oroville in Berry Creek, had his first job at age 14 pushing carts out of a gold mine. Before college, he cut down trees and hauled lumber in the Oroville area, said his widow, Marilyn.

Although the Gregorys lived in Oxnard in Southern California, they remained friends with the McInturfs, camping and fishing together. The visits continued through the families' shared ordeals with pancreatic cancer.

"I didn't think about the coincidence," Judy McInturf said. "It never occurred to me there could be a connection."

If there is a connection between the cancers and some environmental denominator, it may be difficult to pinpoint.

Koppers is one of three Oroville-area businesses that at one point was listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site.

Just down the road from Koppers, the 100-acre Louisiana-Pacific sawmill and wood preservation plant was added to the list in 1986, after nearby groundwater was found contaminated with PCP, a probable carcinogen. Western Pacific Railroad, in the same south Oroville neighborhood, was listed in 1990 after waste solvents, oils, grease and heavy metals contaminated nearby soil and groundwater. Both sites have since been cleaned and taken off the list.

Hack McInturf's friend Del Whittier left Oroville for college and got a part-time job in Stockton, preserving telephone poles with creosote, said his wife, Bev.

Back in Oroville, he cut trees in nearby forests. After his knees gave out, Whittier built himself a portable sawmill. He set it up next door to the Koppers plant in the late 1960s for custom mill jobs.

"It was the main industry around here," said Bev Whittier.

Del Whittier also was an avid fisherman, frequently hooking trout, bass and salmon from Lake Oroville, where state water officials have documented high levels of mercury in fish, and other contaminants related to gold mining.

"He probably had (fish) three or four times a week," Bev Whittier said. "I'd eat one piece and he'd eat five."

After Del was diagnosed, Bev Whittier, 70, remembers thinking it was strange to see acquaintance Dave Sarey in the hospital with pancreatic cancer at the same time as her husband.

For nearly 30 years Sarey ran an asphalt company on Kusel Road, next to Koppers and the railroad. He'd done paving work for Del and Bev Whittier's son.

When contaminated well water in the Sareys' neighborhood was traced back to Koppers, they worried, because Dave Sarey's dad had lived for a time in an apartment at the business and drank from the tap.

So did Sarey's employees.

"They'd come in, get their equipment and fill up their Igloos (coolers) with water and ice," said Sandy Sarey, who had been married to Dave for 25 years before he died on Christmas Eve, 2006.

"We just stopped using it for drinking," said Sandy, who still runs the business with the couple's son. "We don't use it for anything other than washing the vehicles."

Ken Tennigkeit, whose wife of 58 years, Roberta, is nearing the end of a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, also wonders about the water. He recalls water they used for a time at their ranch southeast of Oroville.

"It came out of an open ditch," Ken Tennigkeit said. "Sometimes the water that came into the house looked like tomato juice from rust and dirt."

Marlon Jones, who fought fires with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for 26 years, died of pancreatic cancer in 2005.

For much of his career, the 47-year-old Jones was stationed in southern Butte County, where he had frequent exposure to toxics-laced smoke, co-workers said. The state determined his cancer death was work-related, said Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton.

Bev Whittier said she's anxious to know what in Oroville, if anything, made her husband, his friends and so many others sick.

"It won't bring back Hack or Del," she said, "but I would like to know how to keep my son, grandson and their friends from going through the same thing."