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Parents Wonder If Girl's Leukemia Linked To Gasoline

Apr 16, 2005 | THE DECATUR DAILY

As 5-year-old Haley Terry fights for her life, geologists are trying to determine if the adjacent gas station's underground tanks polluted the water she drinks or the soil on which, in better days, she played.

The state Department of Environ-mental Management ordered Decatur-based Petroleum Sales Inc., owner of Bud's Chevron at Sixth Avenue and Seventh Street Southeast, to assess whether gasoline leaked into the Terrys' yard.

The head of PSI, Stratton Orr, refused comment Friday.

Haley has acute lymphocytic leukemia. Had her parents sought treatment 30 days later than they did, the girl's doctor told them, she would be dead.

While experts say they believe there is a link between benzene, a chemical in gasoline, and leukemia, it is a link they do not entirely understand.

The girl looked more vulnerable than sick Friday. Lying on a couch and covered with a favorite blanket, she slept with her knees pulled to her chest, her thumb in her mouth. Thinning blond hair signaled the early effects of the aggressive chemotherapy that her parents pray will kill the invading cancer cells.

"I want to say, 'Why her, God?' " Harry Terry said as he focused on the girl's steady breathing. "Why did you have to pick this little girl?"

The Terrys have lived in the house since 1994. Until a few days ago, they had not known that ADEM discovered soil and water contamination at the gas station in 1999.

Terry wonders why the owners of the station did not mention the contamination then.

"This question has been raised before, but there is no regulatory requirement to give notice," said Dorothy Malaier, chief of ADEM's Underground Storage Tank Corrective Action section. "There's nothing to prevent the owner from warning people, though."

Last week, under orders from ADEM, contractors installed two groundwater monitors in the Terrys' back yard. ADEM also took soil samples from the yard. The agency took no samples from the Terry yard in 1999, when it first discovered the contamination.

Malaier said laboratory results from the samples would not arrive for several weeks.

"We don't have the test results yet, but there is evidence that the soil did have odors suggesting contamination," Malaier said. "It hasn't been quantified yet."

She said ADEM has confirmed contamination of soil and groundwater on the gas station's land and on adjoining land.

Trucks that fill the underground tanks of Bud's Chevron do so 30 feet from Haley's swing set.

Until the recent repaving of the alley between the Terry house and the gas station, Terry said, he had for years tried unsuccessfully to prevent flooding that shed surface water from the station onto his back yard.

No way to know

Dr. Richard Hayes, a cancer epidemiologist with the National Institutes of Health, said there is no way to know with certainty whether benzene contributed to Haley's acute lymphocytic leukemia.

"We know benzene affects the production of blood cells. Generally it leads to a decrease in blood counts," Hayes said. "That's one effect that is easily measured in people exposed to benzene."

Hayes said benzene can enter the body either through the mouth, as occurs when the chemical contaminates drinking water, or through skin absorption.

The link between benzene and childhood leukemia is particularly difficult to assess, Hayes said, because so few children are exposed to the chemical.

Left untreated, 95 percent of patients with acute leukemia will die within one year of diagnosis.

What gives the Terrys hope is that if doctors can keep her free of the disease for over four years she probably will never have a relapse.

A study published in France last year concluded that children living near gas stations are four times more likely to develop leukemia than the general population.

The longer a child lived near a gas station, the study concluded, the greater the risk.

Haley Terry has spent her entire life next to Bud's Chevron. Throughout her life, ADEM and the owners of the station knew it was contaminated.

A spokesman for ADEM, Clint Niemeyer, said PSI must file a report outlining the corrective action it intends to take by April 29.

That report will address how PSI will go about removing contaminated soil, groundwater and soil vapors.

Rebecca Terry, Haley's mother, took her daughter to a family doctor in late November because of a persistent but low-grade fever. The doctor recommended Tylenol and sent her home.

The fever continued, however, and she asked the doctor to give the child a blood test.

The doctor returned with the results and, Harry Terry recalls, said, "Don't even go home. I know a doctor at Children's Hospital in Birmingham. Go."

"We were both praying it would not be leukemia, but I think we knew it was," the child's father said.

Terry struggles to fit his daughter's illness into his faith, but he said he has no doubt that a small insect bite on his daughter's leg was a gift from God.

After hiking in the woods with his daughter in November, he noticed a small, red bite with a white dot in the center, on her leg. Fearing it was from a brown recluse spider, he took her to a hospital.

He was unsatisfied with the out-of-state hospital's examination.

Terry's fear of that bite may have saved his daughter's life. When she developed a slight fever and fatigue, both parents feared the bite was poisonous. That fear prompted them to be aggressive in pursuing a diagnosis when the girl developed a fever and showed signs of fatigue.

Haley's prognosis is good, largely because her condition was discovered so early. The aggressive chemotherapy regimen is exhausting, but the oncologist said he expects her to survive the disease. She must undergo the chemotherapy for another two years.

Standing over his sleeping daughter, trying to stop his tears, Terry said, "If it weren't for that little spider bite"


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