Feature documentary, 62 minutes, color, produced for KLVX and ITVS/PBS
Producer/Director/Camera: Amie Williams
One by one the children of Fallon have been falling…to cancer. Since 1999, 16 children have been diagnosed with leukemia, in a town with a population of 8,000. The residents of this quiet, ranching community and “Top Gun” Naval airbase are struggling with the reason why.
The filmmaker entered into the community when just six kids have fallen sick. The film follows one central family and two other families as they go through the gut-wrenching process of seeking treatment for their children while simultaneously questioning the investigation process which involves government, media and environmental activists converging on Fallon to get to the bottom of what has been called the “King of all cancer clusters.”
Five-year old Dustin gets a painful shot of chemotherapy as his parents, Brenda and Reto Gross describe the horror of facing the unfathomable. Other parents haltingly recall the day when their child got diagnosed. A journalist from Reno, Frank Mullen walks down the main street of the town during a Fourth of July parade and rattles off the litany of possible causes: Fallon’s drinking water contains one of the highest levels of arsenic in the U.S., over 100 parts per billion, considered hazardous by the EPA, but not a known carcinogen. The naval base and its numerous training flights fly over Fallon, emitting toxic jet fuel into the environment. A thriving ranching base, crops are regularly sprayed with pesticides. And forty years ago, “Project Shoal,” a nuclear bomb was tested underground on the outskirts of the town. Yet there are no outstanding clues.
We meet six-year old Zac Beardlsey, bloated and exhausted from treatment. His mother takes him to meet Hilary Clinton, who has come to town to calm the community, promising along with Senator Harry Reid of Nevada much-needed support and funds. Then there is seven-year-old Ana, vomiting on the playground, sick from her chemotherapy. Her father, Matthew Warneke puts on a brave face, saying her diagnosis was the breaking point, the statistic that put the whole town on the map.
Then Fallon is rocked by the first death, ten-year old Adam Jernee. All the “cluster families” attend his memorial service, held in the town park. After giving a small speech, Adam’s best friend, Connee, starts searching the internet for information on nuclear testing in Nevada, while yet another case is announced, bringing the number to thirteen.
We meet the nervous Dr. Todd, the Nevada State epidemiologist who tries to calm an increasingly panicked community. A mother bursts into tears and asks, “Should we move, what can you tell us?” Ana’s father assures everyone that the town and the Mayor have been supportive, he pleads that people “remember it’s the kids we are here for.”
Meanwhile, Brenda and Reto Gross express frustration with how slow the investigation is going, bogged down with politics and paperwork. The Centers for Disease Control come to town to announce they are breaking their two-decade long moratorium on studying clusters to take blood and cell samples from case families and a control group. Dr. Rubin, the lead CDC researcher, tells Brenda that science has reached a point where cutting-edge toxicology research tools are now available to apply to the mystery. “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think we could find an answer, she tells Brenda.
The kids are amazing, in hospital rooms and at home, in school and with their families they are small heroes, teaching the entire community the value of life and how precious it is. The mayor and his wife talk about how special the town is while the families gather for monthly support meetings. Still no news is forthcoming on the cause. As more scientists and specialists bombard the community, the parents start taking things into their own hands.
A local family practioner, Dr. Gary Ridenour introduces his theory about JP-8, a relatively new jet fuel used in the Gulf War by the U.S. Navy, and pumped through the town in a buried, forty-year old pipeline, owned by the Fortune 500 company Kinder-Morgan. He expresses doubts with the official reports from Kinder Morgan that there are no leaks in the pipeline. His views are echoed by Ana’s Dad, Matthew Warneke. who attends a JP-8 seminar in Washington D.C. and discovers there is another town in Arizona that has what looks like a burgeoning childhood cancer cluster, and it just happens to be the town where Ana was born. It is also a town built around an air base.
Shots of jets flying over town punctuated with dramatic footage from the Fallon Air Show precede a tense interview with Admiral Brad Geotsch from the Naval base. Dr. Ridenour points out that there are known jet fuel plumes underground on the base. The Admiral calmly explains that all the leaks at the base are being monitored under strict EPA requirements.
Then another child (age eighteen) in the cluster dies, and for-sale signs crop up all over town. A local realtor tries to stem the hysteria, and as we near the end of the film, the families’ anger reaches a boiling point. Enter Dr. Mark Witten, a researcher from the University of Arizona, who begins a comparison study of the two small towns, Sierra Vista, Arizona and Fallon, trying to find clues in the tree rings, mapping a “toxicological history of the two towns.”
The CDC returns to Fallon a year later with some preliminary findings, announcing they have found elevated levels of both arsenic and tungsten in the population. Brenda and Reto look over their family’s tests and doubt that these naturally-occurring metals have anything to do with why Dusty got sick. Dusty returns to UC Davis for his final chemotherapy treatment, and the family celebrates with a cake and a prayer. In the end, we watch Dusty walk through a cornfield maze, his small body disappearing into the distance.
We are left with the weight of this mystery, and the helplessness of Fallon’s families in the wake of the cumbersome process of scientific investigation. Journalist Frank Mullen vows to finish writing his story, while Brenda and Reto count their blessings, their son has made it through so far. Whatever fell the children of Fallon remains to be discovered. Whether science can provide the link between the environment and disease is beside the point. These children and the town of Fallon, Nevada will never be the same.
ITVS/Lincs Production with KLVX-PBS Las Vegas, US Broadcast rights are held by PBS. All other rights available.
The Hot Springs International Documentary Film Festival
Lake Arrowhead Film Festival, Best Documentary
Hazel Wolfe Environmental Film Festival, Seattle
Wild and Scenic Environmentak Film Festival
Cinevegas Film Festival
Singapore International Film Festival
Capitol Hill, U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Health, Washington, D.C. (Scheduled for March 9, 2004) Sierra Club, California Chapter
Amie Williams, Producer/Director
Maureen Gosling, Editor
Stephen Thomas Cavit, Composer