Judge rejects newspaper’s petition for cancer cluster document
A 32-page questionnaire crucial in a state investigation of Fallon’s leukemia cluster will not be released to the public.
Swayed by the argument that wide-spread dissemination of the questionnaire could potentially invalidate the results of the state’s investigation, Carson District Judge Michael Griffin denied Wednesday a request from the Reno Gazette-Journal to make public a blank copy of the document. The questionnaire has guided the initial scientific data collection from each of the 15 families in the small Navy and farming town involved in the leukemia cluster investigation.
Griffin said he would not allow the progress of the state’s investigation to be ruined because of his decision.
“I was fully prepared to rule that the press’ position was fully correct,” Griffin said. “I won’t undermine the study. There is compelling interest to keep this information confidential at this time.”
Griffin noted that while state law demands public access to government documents, some case law indicates exceptions to the rule.
Gazette-Journal attorney Phillip Bartlett said there is “no statue or case law that justifies withholding the document,” and he plans to recommend the newspaper appeal Griffin’s decision to the state Supreme Court.
Randall Todd, state epidemiologist, testified over a two-hour period that the questionnaire, which he wrote and administered to the families, plays a crucial role in the ongoing investigation. With the last leukemia case identified in December 2001, Todd said it is speculative to declare an end to the cluster.
Current investigations involve not only interviews and biological samples from the families of leukemia victims, but from controlled, comparison families.
Releasing the document now, Todd said, would allow residents of Churchill County who could become involved in the state’s investigation a chance to “ruminate” over the questions, a process that could alter their memories of certain events.
“I promised Churchill County (residents) to bring the very best science I can,” he said. “I can’t do anything about the bias I can’t control,” he said of local and media speculation surrounding the cluster, “but I’m bound to do everything I can to protect the bias I can control. This is one we hope to control to keep the science as sound as we can.”
Todd said data collected during the cluster investigation could help in other investigations, but only if the data is considered scientifically sound.
“It might make the suffering of Fallon worth something,” he said.
Bartlett argued Wednesday that the state health department’s offer to release the document at the conclusion of the cluster investigation is unacceptable because “it’s news now.” Bartlett indicated the paper couldn’t accept an offer to review and not print the questions on the document because with a review by experts “it would be impossible to talk about questions without talking about questions.”
Bartlett argued there are people, especially when the transition population traveling through Naval Air Station Fallon is accounted for, who don’t know they could be affected by the cluster and could benefit from publication of the questionnaire. He said that alone should be enough to force the state to release the information.
Todd noted the leukemia cluster has received international media attention. It has been featured in media outlets such as the the “Today Show” and “60 Minutes” and in newspapers around the country.
Bartlett also argued there is nothing to keep Fallon residents, especially families who have been interviewed, from sharing the information from the questionnaire, events which could also taint the study.
“(Fallon residents) don’t have the reach of the Reno Gazette-Journal in terms of blasting this across the community,” Todd countered.
Bartlett also said because the state released a smaller, 12-page questionnaire that is available to the public, the larger document could hardly be considered more of a risk to the state’s investigation.
Todd said the Centers for Disease Control and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry have finished collecting biological samples, and he expects some laboratory results back from the CDC by the end of the summer.
In 2000 Nevada health officials began investigating seven cases of childhood acute lymphocytic leukemia, or ALL, in the rural farming and Navy community of 26,000. They suspect an environmental cause to the cluster, which now includes 15 cases of ALL and one case of acute myelogenous leukemia, or AML. Two of the leukemia victims, Adam Jernee, 10, and Stephanie Sands, 21, succumbed to the disease last year.
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