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Health Inquiry Looks At Lab Site

PERCHLORATES: The EPA is assessing groundwater and soil contamination on the 429-acre property

Apr 11, 2003 | Riverside Press Enterprise

When Lee Wardle was diagnosed with thyroid cancer 12 years ago, she wondered in jest if the missile testing lab down the street from her home was to blame.

The top-secret activity at Wyle Laboratories has been a running joke among neighbors, Wardle said. When a tree died or a cat got sick, "We would laugh and say, 'It must be Wyle Labs again.' "

But then Wardle's daughter-in-law moved into the Hillside Avenue house and she, too, developed thyroid cancer. When the family moved away, the woman who bought the house had to have her thyroid removed as well. Rick Schooley next door had his removed. Diane Gerhart across the street developed a thyroid tumor. Jo Ellen Jenkins next door to Gerhart also had to have her thyroid removed, as did Pat Dubeil, who lives behind Gerhart. Carol Micu, who lives a little farther down Hillside, is the latest neighbor to have her thyroid taken out.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency launched an investigation this week to determine if groundwater and soil contamination at the Wyle site poses a public health threat. The probe was prompted in part by INSIST, a community group formed by nearby residents.

Wyle officials say that they follow safety requirements and have no comment on any possible link between their operations and the illnesses.

Toxins discovered

Wyle Labs sits on 429 acres that was once isolated but is now partially surrounded by homes. The site is authorized to handle hazardous and radioactive materials and to test products such as jet fuels and weapons such as warheads and missiles.

In the past couple of years, the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and the Department of Toxic Substances Control have found contaminants in soil and groundwater at the property that include toxic and cancer-causing substances such as vinyl chloride, lead, trichloroethene, dichloroethene and perchlorate.

The water table surrounding the Hillside Avenue neighborhood is high, and yards there are prone to flooding during rains. Some residents wonder if they were exposed to harmful chemicals particularly perchlorate, which interferes with thyroid function through vapors rising from the groundwater or through vegetables grown in their yards.

Others think drinking-water wells may have been contaminated years ago. Norco-area agencies began testing for perchlorate three years ago, said Debra McNay, Norco spokeswoman. None of the tests has detected perchlorate, a salt used in products such as rocket fuel and fireworks.

The cluster of thyroid disorders on Hillside Avenue at least eight cases among fewer than two dozen homes and affecting people who have lived there four to more than 30 years could be linked to perchlorate at Wyle, or it could be a total coincidence, said Dr. Rudolph Von Burg, who has worked as a toxicologist for Chevron Corp. and various state agencies.

"I can't speak to any correlation between Wyle and thyroid (disorders)," said Wyle spokesman Keith Anderson. "I'm not an oncologist or an expert."

Wyle submits a standard operating plan to the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, Anderson said, to make sure the company is in compliance with safety and health standards.

He said no perchlorate or jet fuel leaks have occurred since he started with the company in 1997, but added that he didn't know what happened before then. The company already is planning to clean up the soil and groundwater before closing the Norco facility in two years to make way for 368 homes.

A widespread problem

Perchlorate has been found in groundwater in Redlands, Rialto and Glen Avon. More than 130 drinking-water wells serving cities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties and portions of Orange County have been found to contain levels of the chemical ranging from 4 parts per billion to more than 800 parts per billion, according to the state water-quality board.

The U.S. EPA's current guideline sets a range for safe drinking water up to 18 parts per billion. Earlier this year, the state EPA announced a proposed public health goal of 2 to 6 parts per billion. Some water agencies have shut down wells that have 4 parts per billion.

The highest level of perchlorate found in groundwater below Wyle is 7.9 parts per billion. The state water-quality board has not deemed the contaminants found at Wyle to be an immediate threat to drinking water supplies, said Bob Holub, supervising water resource control engineer.

However, because the board lacks the resources and authority to fully assess the health threat, Riverside County Department of Health Services officials and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control have been asked to evaluate the situation, he said.

Dr. Gina Solomon, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Hillside Avenue residents have reason to be concerned.

"But it would be very hard to link their thyroid cancer to the perchlorate," she said. "It's a high rate for people to be having their thyroids removed, but a number of factors could contribute, including genetics."

It is difficult to determine the cause of thyroid disorders. "Often, by the time someone gets sick, all traces of the cause have vanished," Solomon said. "A person could have been exposed 10 years ago and only now experience the sickness."

Thyroid nodules, goiters and cancer affect 4 percent to 7 percent of the population, and about 25 percent of those people will need surgery or radiation, according to Ellen Brightly, spokeswoman for the Thyroid Foundation of America. The disorders tend to be genetic, but also can be caused by environmental factors such as exposure to radioactive material or the consumption of hazardous chemicals, she said.

Living with uncertainty

Leah Btalkin, 27, whose thyroid was removed in November, is recovering from thyroid cancer. Her doctors have asked her if she was exposed to radiation.

"Now I wonder if I was exposed because I went to Norco intermediate and (Norco) high school by Wyle. I think of all those days I stayed after school playing basketball and drinking from the water fountain."

Many residents describe Wyle as a good neighbor that has provided job opportunities to the community.

"I think the talk of sickness and pollution is just a bunch of hooey," said Hillside resident Elizabeth Crouse. "The secrecy (surrounding Wyle) just makes for good gossip."

Sheryl Wardle, 39, was born with a goiter, but her thyroid functioned normally for decades before she lived on Hillside Avenue. "My condition was definitely pre-existing," Wardle said. "Why it became cancerous, I have to wonder: Was it because I was born with a goiter or because I lived on Hillside?"

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