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Pollution still making us sick, Tucson south-siders tell Air Force

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The Martinez family, from left: Jenny Ruiz; Debra Bejarano; their father, Fernando Martinez; their mother, Kathryn Martinez; and Teresa Lopez. Kathryn Martinez holds a photo of her daughter Sonya Gradillas, who died of cancer at 50.

Once again, claims that groundwater pollution left behind by defense plants and other industries are causing cancers and other illnesses are pouring in from Tucson’s south side.

More than 1,350 south-side residents have filed formal claims with the U.S. Air Force in the past year regarding “alleged contamination” at its plant where the long-departed Hughes Aircraft Co. once manufactured defense-related products, an Air Force spokesman said last week.

With claims still arriving regularly, and with so many parties involved, the Air Force hasn’t decided on any claim and has no timetable, spokesman Mark Kinkade said.

Details of most of the claims aren’t immediately available. But more than a half-dozen residents who filed claims told the Arizona Daily Star last week that they believe contaminated drinking water and possible other exposures to pollution left them with various cancers, heart ailments, autoimmune diseases such as lupus and other health problems. Such claims are often precursors to future lawsuits.

These claims are the latest chapter in an ongoing saga dating back three generations on the south side.

It’s been 70 or more years since Air Force contractors and other industries started dumping solvents and other industrial wastes into the ground near Tucson International Airport. Hughes arrived in the early 1950s but other aircraft manufacturers were using that area as a dumping ground in the late 1940s.

It’s been more than 35 years since authorities first discovered trichloroethylene (TCE) and other chemicals in the south side’s groundwater west of the airport, and at least seven city wells were shut down.

And it’s been nearly 27 years since the first of several settlements totaling well over $100 million was reached between various companies and government agencies and hundreds of south-siders who said they got cancer and other ailments from drinking the polluted water.

The latest claims are from residents who said they either weren’t ill when the original TCE lawsuits were filed, or didn’t know about the earlier lawsuits until it was too late to join them, said Linda Robles, a south-side community activist who has spearheaded the filing of new claims.

The claims, filed over the past year, involve TCE and 1,4-dioxane, another solvent that was discovered in the groundwater here in 2002, long after the earlier lawsuits were filed.

Tucson Water officials have repeatedly said that no contaminated water has been served to the south-side areas since TCE-tainted wells were closed in the 1980s, but many residents have said they don’t believe that.

Cleanup of the TCE from the water started at a city-run treatment plant in 1994, and a second treatment plant was built in 2014 to remove dioxane. The underground pollution plume has noticeably shrunk although authorities say they still don’t know when the cleanup will be finished.

Hypertension, brain tumors, heart disease, asthma, rashes, internal bleeding, colon, kidney and liver cancers and headaches are among the illnesses described in the claims, Robles said. Some of the claims go well beyond the kinds of diseases normally associated with TCE and dioxane.

Fifty-year-old Carmen “Roxie” Castillo, who has lived on the south side since age 7, wrote that since 1992, she’s suffered at various times from “inflammatory arthritis, fibromyalgia, optic neuritis, chronic fatigue, kidney disease, nausea, insomnia, depression, diminished memory and attention deficit, hair loss, migraines, respiratory issues, chronic pain, stomach issues and weight gain.” She’s also had lupus since age 25, she said in an interview.

Together, these ailments caused “my promising career as a Superior Court Case Manager to come to an end in April of 2008,” Castillo wrote in her claim last June.

“My household income has diminished, my marriage (and) personal relationships were affected year after year, my various symptoms altogether has kept me dependent on the care of others, (and this) has caused me to be shut in and has dramatically diminished my quality of life,” wrote Castillo, who has lived in two houses near Santa Clara Avenue and Los Reales Road.

What really drove her to file a claim, however, is when her best friend and fellow south-side resident Michelle Gutierrez died two years ago at 48 of brain cancer, she said. Gutierrez’s younger sister and younger brother also have had kidney and brain cancer respectively, Robles said.

Long latency period

But interviews with lawyers and other experts on the questions of pollution and disease suggest that these and other residents have a long road ahead of them before collecting judgments. Proving that pollution causes illness is a time-consuming, complicated and difficult task.

Since cancer at least is known to have a long latency period, cancers occurring in the past 10 to 15 years could at least theoretically have been caused by TCE exposures of 35 years ago, said University of Massachusetts professor Richard Clapp. He’s an epidemiologist whose analysis in the 1980s for Massachusetts’ public health agency confirmed a leukemia cluster in the city of Woburn, later chronicled in the book and movie “A Civil Action.”

Kidney cancers, which have some of the strongest known links to TCE of any cancers, take decades to develop, although leukemia develops much more quickly, Clapp said. Birth defects occurring in the past decade wouldn’t likely be caused by historical contamination, he said.

There’s never been a full-scale epidemiological study of potential links between cancer, other illnesses and pollution on the south side. Arizona’s state-run cancer registry has not found any unusual number of total cancers on the south side. But a multi-part series by former Star reporter Jane Kay in 1985 uncovered an unusual number of individual cancers in the area.

Now, the passage of time makes proving the link between residents’ illnesses and contamination more difficult, said Tony Roisman, an East Coast attorney who represented hundreds of Tucson clients who won settlements in the earlier suits. As the residents age, they’ll naturally get more illnesses even without pollution.

Paloma Beamer, a University of Arizona public health professor, heard many of the residents’ stories when attending a community teach-in on the subject last summer and a town hall on it this month sponsored by the Environmental Justice Task Force, which Robles founded.

Peoples’ stories are troubling and tragic, “and there are too many in one spot for me to understand,” Beamer said.

“But until we interview a cross section of a population that is randomly chosen, we won’t understand whether it is unusual or not,” she said. “We’ve only been talking to people who show up.”

Litanies of ailments

For now, the Air Force won’t comment on the merits of individual claims, spokesman Kinkade said.

“All claims submitted to date will be reviewed and adjudicated in accordance with the Federal Tort Claims Act and existing case law and regulations,” he said. “As we are in the process of evaluating claims, it would be improper for us to offer an opinion on the merits or fact of any particular claim at this time.”

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Alfonso Martinez, back left, says he filed a claim in part because his wife, Virginia, center, has been sick for 30 years of their 36-year marriage.

South-side couple Alfonso and Virginia Martinez filed a claim partly because in 36 years of marriage, Virginia has been sick for 30, Alfonso said. Virginia, 52, has been diagnosed with lupus, fibromyalgia and kidney failure, said her husband, who is 56.

One of their four children, Christina Martinez, has uterus cancer and had a daughter who was born with Treacher Collins syndrome, a rare genetic condition that included deformities of her jaw and face. She died in 2012 at age 12. A son was born to Christina with Goldenhar syndrome, which delays development, Alfonso said.

Alfonso’s youngest son, Fernie, now 27, started having seizures at age 3 and was diagnosed as epileptic, he said. Son Mario is 29 but mentally far less developed, said his father, who lives near Pueblo High School. Alfonso has lived on the south side since he was born there in 1961.

“It’s supposed to be the other way around,” Alfonso said of his granddaughter’s premature death. “Our grandkids are supposed to bury us but we’re burying our grandkids.”

Claimant Kathleen Richards, 60, said she has diverticulitis, spine problems and a falling uterus. Richards said she’s lived on the south side since she was 15. Her husband died less than six months ago after suffering brain seizures, a valve opening in his heart, an enlarged prostate and kidney and liver problems, she said. Her husband’s brother died of a rare blood disease at age 38 and her son, now 25, developed a heart arrhythmia at age 7.

Debra Bejarano, 55, has filed a claim in part because she and four of her sisters have had cancer, including herself and three others with cervical cancer and a fifth with liver cancer.

Her father and mother, Fernando and Kathryn Martinez, have filed separate claims. He filed a claim because he has varicose veins, 10 stents placed in his heart, poor circulation and has had back problems and knee replacement surgery. Kathryn, 80 like her husband, has had six stents placed in her heart, and has fought a severe case of hives, she said.

Two of Bejarano’s sisters died of cancer, most recently 50-year-old Sonya, who died last December after a two-year battle with cervical cancer. Debra got cervical cancer during the 1980s but recovered, she said.

Bejarano’s sister Terry, 62, got a total hysterectomy five years ago after getting uterine and cervical cancer. A fourth sister, Monica Martinez, now 53, was successfully treated for cervical cancer in the 1980s, Bejarano said.

Bejarano’s parents moved their family in 1960 into a house near South 12th Avenue and Valencia Road where the parents still live. Bejarano said she drank water from a well nearby until she was 29 in the 1980s.

Another sister, Jenny Ruiz, 61, has fought lupus for six years, Debra said. Debra also has started to suffer from swelling legs and increasing fatigue, she said. “I used to walk. I used to jog down the street to Mission Manor park and school, six blocks down. I can’t now.”

Many steps needed
to show links

For the residents to prove that chemical exposures caused their illnesses first requires that published studies support a link between the contaminants and the particular cancer they’re suffering, said epidemiologist Clapp.

Usually a second requirement is getting a physician familiar with the patient to rule out other potential causes and to say the patient’s cancer was “to a reasonable degree of medical probability” from chemical exposure, Clapp said.

Links between TCE, dioxane and some cancers have been clearly documented in studies, such as kidney and liver cancers for TCE and liver and gallbladder tumors for dioxane. The lupus-TCE link is also documented. But other cancers aren’t so clearly linked, including some reported by the claimants.

An example is cervical cancer, which studies have established is caused mainly by the HPV virus, short for human papillomavirus, said Dr. Francisco Garcia, Pima County’s assistant county administrator for health services and its chief medical officer. In 2008, German scientist Harald Zur Hausen won a Nobel Prize for his research documenting that link, in research dating to the 1970s and ’80s.

“We have known since the mid- to late-1990s that 99 percent of the cervical cancers are linked to the high-risk HPV virus,” Garcia said. The most common forms of this cancer are squamous and adenocarcinoma, which are not environmentally linked, he said.

A Google search turns up some studies showing an association, though not a cause-effect relationship, between cervical cancer and TCE. Most notably, a 2013 Scandinavian study found a statistically significant connection among those who worked with TCE in three countries in that region. But Garcia said that study — which emphasized that additional research is needed — has been broadly criticized because it failed to control for specific types of HPV viruses found in the persons it examined.

Garcia was raised on Tucson’s south side, and said he has “an acute and particular interest in understanding what happens in that area.” But speaking generally, “it’s hard for me to comment in a vacuum,” not knowing about the individuals’ specific health issues raised in the claims and not knowing where they lived or how long they lived there, he said.

Another scientist with expertise in cervical cancer, pharmacology professor Laure Aurelian of the University of Maryland, said that while there’s no evidence clearly linking cervical cancer to environmental causes, in her opinion the relationship between HPV and cervical cancer still hasn’t been studied well. Once the Nobel Prize was awarded for Zur Hausen’s work, “all research stopped,” she said.

Claimants’ cases
need screening

Attorney Tony Roisman won one of the past TCE legal settlements in the early 2000s, representing about 250 south-siders, while working with Tucson attorney Sheldon Lazarow. Roisman believes he was able to win the settlements by taking several steps to screen for the best cases.

First, he and his partner used questionnaires about potential clients’ personal histories to screen out residents never exposed to TCE. Then, they obtained medical records for those left in the case and got from a recognized TCE expert, now-retired epidemiologist David Ozonoff, a list of diseases one would expect to get from TCE exposure.

Then, working with a group of nurses they hired, the attorneys provided Ozonoff with the patients’ relevant medical history and behavior such as smoking or drinking. Ozonoff identified those that he believed indicated a plausible linkage between their diseases and TCE exposures, Roisman said.

“By the time we filed suit, we felt we had a fairly good claim,” he said.

Speaking of the current claims filed with the Air Force, he said it’s “irresponsible” to encourage people to file claims without screening for the most credible cases. “Then, the number of people who don’t have good claims dilutes those who do.”

Linda Robles said one reason she didn’t follow those detailed steps is that she couldn’t find a doctor locally or any attorneys willing to help with such a detailed process. She did have residents who filed claims fill out a health survey, and got advice from a local physician about questions to ask.

“We didn’t determine who files claims. The people chose to file claims,” said Robles, whose involvement in this issue traces back to the death of a daughter to lupus and to other family illnesses, including two children with lupus and an ex-husband with kidney cancer. “If they needed help filing it, we helped them. I was very careful on how that was conducted.”

Roisman, who now chairs Vermont’s Public Utilities Commission, concluded, “I understand the natural tendency when something terrible happens, is to want to know, ‘Why did this happen to me, my spouse, my child, my parent.’

“But that doesn’t mean the right course of action is to pick out somebody and file a claim against them.”

Contact reporter Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. On Twitter@tonydavis987