The Rosamond child cancer cluster

rosamond_2These photos are from the saddest project I ever worked on, the Rosamond childhood cancer cluster. I shot this over several months in 1988. There were two cancer clusters in Kern County at the time. The other was in McFarland, and Henry Barrios worked on that one. Probably because of the political clout and organizing abilities of the United Farm Workers, McFarland received most of the national media attention. But out in the desert, the people of Rosamond found themselves confronting an environmental horror of epic proportions: In a 10-year period, 9 children had come down with cancer, most of them with an extremely rare brain cancer called medullablastoma. The cancer was so rare that one health official said if two cases appeared in a city the size of Los Angeles in the same time period, officials would have considered it cause for alarm. Rosamond had 3,500 residents at the time. The childhood cancer rate in Rosamond was six times the national average. Residents were left to their own grass roots efforts in an effort to get answers, usually holding organizing meetings in the local feed store. They were convinced that years of unregulated dumping of toxic chemicals, wiring and discarded materials from the area’s massive civil and military aeronautical industries caused the cancers. State investigations were never able to pinpoint a source, and the cause of the clusters was never found. One thing that is not in dispute, however, is that this far southeast section of Kern County was a dumping ground. Reporter Sally Connell and I had no trouble finding dozens of illegal dumps anywhere we went in town, often on the grounds or adjacent to where families, mostly poor rural families lived in trailers. By contrast, across the Los Angeles County line that divided Kern and LA counties, there was no illegally dumped material to be found. I believe that all of the children who contracted the brain cancer died. Residents believe the state didn’t do enough to solve the case.

Dying of brain cancer at age 17, this boy agreed to pose for a photo with his mom if he could use his hair to hide the large tumor growing near his left eye. Several children developed an extremely rare form of brain cancer.
Dying of brain cancer at age 17, this boy agreed to pose for a photo with his mom if he could use his hair to hide the large tumor growing near his left eye. Several children developed an extremely rare form of brain cancer.

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These children lived next to a field containing discarded missile casings and other aerospace industry debris that was dumped and scattered throughout the town.

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These missile casings were located at what was called the 50th Street West site. Dumping was unregulated in the southeastern Kern County town, while nearby Los Angeles county, just two or three miles away, showed no signs of dumping.
With most media attention concentrated on the McFarland cancer cluster in northern Kern County, Rosamond residents struggled to obtain outside interest in their situation. Their efforts were grass roots, headquartered in the local feed store.

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State health officials wait for residents to show for a session to answer questions. Residents were so frustrated with the state many decided not to attend. The mom, below, did, with her daughter, desperate for answers.

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Residents pack the school gymnasium, desperate for answers from state health officials.
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This father lost a child and was frustrated by the lack of progress in the investigation. He would never get those answers. A cause was never found.