The Right to Answers

Nobody knows why the babies are dying near Weldon Spring. But the grownups can't help asking whether the site's toxic stew is to blame.

Another parishioner told Kleba that insurance rates at Francis Howell High School had gone up sharply, and people were saying it was because so many of their teachers there had miscarriages. (Lou Ann Platt, director of personnel for the district, says there was no single cause -- claims were high across the board compared with other employers their size. "We did have a very high number of transplants, more than most of their other groups combined. And when we were soliciting bids, I had companies tell me that both our medical and our prescription costs were very high. One company called because they thought we must have typed the prescription figure wrong!")

Finally Kleba heard from Mary Jo Dazey and Peggy Buhrman. Moms from Cottleville, a town south of the Weldon Spring site, they'd tried to research local leukemia rates in the early '90s. Dazey taught at the St. Joseph parish school and lived in the Meadow Ridge subdivision, and she'd watched 9-year-old Emily Kreft, who lived just down the street from her in Meadow Ridge, battle leukemia while another little girl in her class went into remission and a boy in the fourth grade died. Then they found four more leukemia cases in the district. "The officials were, like, 'Oh, please go away, you frustrated housewife,'" recalls Dazey. Now another young girl in Meadow Ridge had been found to have leukemia. Maybe Kleba, who'd already gotten so much more public support, could continue what they had started?

Nobody knows what causes most cases of childhood leukemia. It's one of the most common childhood cancers, but childhood cancer itself is relatively rare, hitting only one or two kids in every 10,000. St. Charles County has twice exceeded the norm: From 1975-79, there were 13 cases where seven were expected; from 1985-91, there were 12 cases where six were expected. But because the overall rate, averaged over the entire 22 years, wasn't increased, and because the geographic distribution wasn't patterned around the Weldon Spring site, the state saw no need for concern.

"It's easier for me to believe in God than in the government," says Father Gerry Kleba.
Jennifer Silverberg
"It's easier for me to believe in God than in the government," says Father Gerry Kleba.

Alyce Turner, an investigator who helped collate study data, wanted to go further, studying medical histories and habits and possible environmental links, but her $125,000 grant application was rejected. If there were no mechanisms for the contaminants to reach people, why study exposure's possible consequences?

By mid-February, even some of Kleba's own parishioners were starting to doubt his quest. "It's not right to scare young couples who are buying their dream house and starting their family," murmured one woman, and the mother of the seventh dead infant, who'd just brought her twin safely home, said she was pretty sure their case, at least, wasn't environmental -- it was a placenta problem common with twins, and they'd only moved to the area four months before the birth. Even Bob Hoing, one of the parish's old stalwarts, hinted with all the tact he could muster that Kleba was heading down a foolish path. "Just a quirk of nature," he called the infant deaths and leukemia spurts. "I guess I'm sort of a fatalist about it."

Kleba listened and nodded, but he couldn't forget that one of Hoing's grandsons had had neuroblastoma, a rare brain cancer, when he was 4, and the other needed a pacemaker at 3. Compared with the entire state, children in St. Charles County have slightly higher rates of all cancers but lower rates of accidental injury, birth defects, homicide and heart disease. Compared with St. Louis County, adults in St. Charles County have slightly higher rates of colorectal cancer, lung cancer and lung disease (all of which have strong links to environmental toxins) and lower rates of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Statistically, the leading health problems for St. Charles County are cancers.

Immaculate Conception had seen its share of adult leukemia, too, parishioners reminded Kleba. What about Dove Vohs, whose leukemia was diagnosed when she was 35 and who was now in remission after bone-marrow and stem-cell transplants? She and her husband moved to a home a few miles from the Weldon Spring site 10 years ago; after six healthy, active years, she found herself coming home bone-tired, going straight to bed and not getting up until the next morning. The first thing her doctor asked was how close to the site she lived. Then she went to get the first of many prescriptions filled, and the pharmacist asked, too. "There's been cases of leukemia as far as Shenandoah Stables [20 miles north, one of the area's first dioxin-tainted Superfund sites]," he told her. "When you feel better again, you might want to check into it."

Vohs went straight to the public library and pulled heavy binders documenting the cleanup off the top shelf. The numbers swam before her eyes. "What I was looking for, I don't know," she admits. "But there's a stream right by my house that turns into a rainbow every summer, blue and yellow with chemicals." Remembering how the water used to smell like chlorine when they first moved there, Vohs went to the water department, too. They asked why she suspected the water supply and not the air. She didn't know what to say.

« Previous Page
Next Page »