Cancer in Paradise

What's attacking the people of Avon Lake?

Mondovino Cedar Lee Theatre
Zipping around the shaded streets of Avon Lake, Megan Graff seems more private investigator than stay-at-home mother of two. There is kid-clutter in her dusty Chevy Blazer, but more noticeable are the heaviness of her foot, the urgency in her voice, and the legal pad at her side, scribbled with the names of people fighting cancer.

"What's that mound?" she asks, after she yanks her SUV into the parking lot of a playground. A long stretch of grass rises up and then drops abruptly; she wonders whether something is buried under there -- something that's poisoning the soil and making people sick.

It's likely to be an innocent mound of dirt, piled long ago. But such suspicions have plagued Graff since last year.

The serene subdivisions, the stellar schools, the low taxes -- these are what brought her here from St. Louis four years ago. Avon Lake was the suburb of a young family's dreams. Graff was 24 years old and ready to start a family.

Then she started hearing the rumors -- a low but steady murmur that has been humming here for years. Friends and neighbors spoke of abnormal cancers -- from kids with leukemia and brain tumors to adults with cervical and ovarian cancers. And the buzz seemed to keep getting louder. Suddenly, her vision of paradise was growing fuzzier with every billow from the city's smokestacks, every hint of odor from the lake.

Despite Avon Lake's outward appearance of suburban bliss, Lorain County is among the nation's most polluted communities, according to the public-policy group Environmental Defense. And three of its biggest polluters -- a coal-burning power plant, a Ford assembly plant, and an industrial-chemical factory -- are based in Avon Lake. A host of other manufacturers also share this lakeside perch.

Graff knows that a study made in the early '90s failed to link cancer to pollution. She knows that Ohio is once again investigating the matter and that it's likely to reach the same conclusion. But like many mothers here, she's not easily appeased.

So here she is, in a park, wondering whether the culprit lurks nearby. She walks to the edge of a creek, which flows directly into Lake Erie, to see whether the water is murky. It looks clean enough to drink.

When she climbs back into her Blazer, she motors past a large Catholic church. A lot of the sick kids go to mass here, she's heard. Is there a connection?

"I keep saying I don't want to do this -- I want to enjoy my family," Graff says. "But if something's real important to you, you just can't trust other people to do it."

Amid a garageful of bikes and sedans, Joe Sacco looks unmistakably like a 39-year-old man who has made it. His home, a brick two-story with a gabled roof, sits on a long, curvy street. A yellow lab named Sammy is barking in the driveway, tied to a portable basketball hoop low enough for his eight-year-old to dunk on. His job as a pharmaceuticals salesman gives him the flexibility to go on family bike rides in the morning and coach Little League in the evening.

It was two years ago that Sacco and his wife, DeDe, first cruised through this spanking-new subdivision. After living in Cleveland's eastern suburbs, Joe, who grew up in North Olmsted, convinced DeDe that the West Side was home.

They wanted a new house, to be surrounded by young families like theirs. Sacco heard that Avon Lake's schools were highly touted. He heard about the low taxes. He heard that Avon Lake, though fast-growing, retained a small-town feel.

He heard nothing about cancer.

In July of 2003, the Saccos dropped $310,000 on their brick castle. "We just knew it was a nice community," Sacco says.

Then, last summer, a fever. The Saccos' daughter, two at the time, couldn't get over a lingering sickness. The doctors checked for strep throat and an ear infection. Nothing. Then they did a blood test. When the results came back, they sent the family for bone-marrow tests. "I knew it was leukemia," Sacco says.

His daughter immediately underwent treatment -- chemotherapy, spine injections, and a month of steroids. It was then, Sacco says, that he "started hearing things."

He learned that a guy at his gym has a son with leukemia. The daughter of the city's law director has non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. A woman in town lost her son to an acute form of leukemia -- and then was diagnosed with a similar cancer herself.

Ohio doesn't track cancer rates in cities, but parents do, sometimes on paper, sometimes only in their racing minds. Maria Bender, a 38-year-old mother of three, keeps her own list of names and ailments. On it: two high-schoolers, a middle-schooler, a fifth-grader, and two babies -- all battling leukemia. They're joined by 8 people with brain tumors and 29 others with cancers of the thyroid, breast, cervical, testicles, ovaries, and more.

The schools try to keep track too. Superintendent Bob Scott knows of four students with cancer, all in remission. But he acknowledges that many parents don't want people to know about their kids' illnesses. "We know the numbers aren't right," he says.

Sacco's daughter is among those in remission. She's started to get her hair and disposition back. But there are more tests and more treatments to come. In the meantime, Sacco waits for answers.

"Moving here has been perfect," he says. "We live in a great neighborhood. We have perfect neighbors. This thing kind of hangs over our head."

Sacco's answers may come soon. Whether they'll contain any truth is another matter.

Last year, after worries migrated from subdivisions to City Hall, Avon Lake asked the Ohio Department of Health to investigate whether the city has an abnormal rate of leukemia, and if so, what might be the cause. The agency's findings are expected soon.

But even within the realm of the state's ineffectual bureaucracy, ODH has been singled out for special criticism. It's long been derided as a see-no-evil agency, with a history of ignoring unexplainable cancer clusters and structuring its investigations to virtually guarantee that pollution will be ruled out as a cause ["Stonewall," April 23, 2003].

Its most alarming failure came in 1997. Parents in Marion County noticed a large number of River Valley High graduates being diagnosed with leukemia. The school sat on an old military depot; they worried that something nefarious lurked in the ground. Their instincts were right. The military had dumped cancer-causing chemicals where the school's playing fields were later built.

ODH swept in to study the cases. The agency's chief investigator, Robert Indian, concluded that River Valley grads suffered from leukemia at three times the normal rate. But he blamed it on tobacco use.

The findings made no sense -- the school's students were no more likely to smoke than other kids. But the report came as no surprise. The agency's reputation had preceded it.

During the 1980s, the department delayed a study of multiple-sclerosis cases in Galion, Ohio, for so long that, by the time investigators showed up, some of the sick had already died.

In a 1994 case in North Royalton, the department found nothing wrong with a woman's well water -- though federal investigators found combustible gas in the water that reached explosive levels.

Episodes like these have fostered little trust in Avon Lake. "Robert Indian never finds anything," Graff says. And from the way he designed his Avon Lake study, it appears that he'll do little to soothe the worries by the shore.

According to the city, ODH switched from studying only leukemia to studying all cancers -- despite the fact that by its own definition, a "cancer cluster" is usually an abnormal occurrence of one form of cancer.

"We asked for the leukemia study," says Mayor Rob Berner. "The state's the one that decided to expand the study. I have no idea why."

Indian declined comment. But in an e-mail, spokesman Jay Carey says the study always focused on all cancers. "The ODH did not make a change," he writes.

But why all cancers? Linking a specific type of cancer to an environmental hazard is difficult enough. Linking all cancers is even tougher. "When you look at everything, it makes it harder," says Devra Davis, an epidemiologist at the University of Pittsburgh. "A way of looking is a way of not looking."

The results aren't yet public, but Indian has told Berner that there's probably nothing to worry about -- that the study is not likely to find a link to the environment.

Parents aren't surprised. "They don't want to find a link," Bender says.

Still, any scientist would have a hard time establishing a connection. Health officials argue that less than 5 percent of cancers are caused by the environment. They caution frustrated communities that what they think are cancer clusters usually aren't. Because cancer can emerge long after exposure to whatever causes it, life changes -- like moving or changing jobs -- make it "difficult and rare" to find cancer causes, says Carey.

Also, cancer is most often caused by lifestyle choices -- smoking, diet, etc. -- or genetics. In other words: It's usually not in the ground, the air, or the water. It's in you.

But parents know there are times when it isn't, so they can't help but wonder: What if this is one of those times?

Robert Indian has been to Avon Lake before. The state health department descended on the suburb in 1992, after five cases of a rare ovarian germ-cell cancer emerged among children and young adults. The cancer was known to affect only 300 people across the country; five cases in a small town seemed curious, even to the usually dubious Indian. "If a plane crashes in my backyard in Columbus, OK," he told Lorain's Morning Journal in 1993. "If two planes crash in my backyard, you look for a pattern."

The story dominated Lorain County newspapers, and it jolted Avon Lake, which was then transforming from a prairie town into a quintessential suburb. Though the city is dotted with manufacturers big and small, many of which use hazardous chemicals, people were willing to ignore the industry. Houses sprouted in clumps, guarded by trees and fields. With the right seclusion, residents could forget all about living in one of the nation's most polluted areas.

But when fears of cancer showed up on the front page, the city's industrial giants fell under the microscope. A coal-burning power plant on the cliffs above Lake Erie is among the worst polluters in Ohio. Only a few blocks away, mammoth factories for Ford and Geon Co. -- which produces PVC made with toxic plastics -- were also viewed with suspicion.

Parents were desperate: Could the rare cancers really be a coincidence?

Apparently, yes. Just as he did three years later in Marion, Indian found that Avon Lake's abnormal cluster of germ-cell cancer was an unfortunate coincidence. The five victims -- including a 14-year-old girl, who later died -- had no common exposures, Indian's report concluded.

Over the next decade, the fears in Avon Lake dissipated. The city flourished, growing to nearly 20,000 people, many of them blissful with the life they'd built.

But this time around, there are parents who will not let the issue fade so gently away. Graff and another mother, Kimberly Pils, have hammered city leaders with questions about Avon Lake's industry, particularly the power plant, which is owned by Reliant Energy of Texas.

According to Environmental Defense, residents in Lorain County have among the highest risks of cancer nationwide, owing to the heavy pollution. The Reliant plant, for example, released almost 3 million pounds of pollutants in 2002, including arsenic and mercury.

Coal plants have caused similar worries in other communities. In Greene County, Pennsylvania, near the West Virginia border, environmentalists are blaming a coal plant for the area's high cancer rates. And last month, Akron's Beacon-Journal reported that several ex-workers at the now-closed Gorge plant in North Akron are sick or have died of cancer. Workers and their families believe the plant is to blame.

ODH hasn't studied Gorge. But Indian told the Beacon that since workers suffer from "a broad spectrum of everyday cancers," proving a connection would be difficult. It might be easier to prove a link, Indian told the paper, if the workers suffered from a rarer cancer. Like, say, leukemia.

Professor Davis admits that it's almost impossible to tie cancer to a specific source. But she asks: "What kind of proof do you need before you take actions to clean things up further? . . . The absence of evidence should never be confused with evidence that there isn't an effect."

In Avon Lake, however, it almost surely will. If the report says what everyone expects it to -- that there's nothing dangerous in the environment -- Mayor Berner will be ready to move on.

"My personal opinion is, we listen to the report, we have our public hearings, we let it be said, and we leave it at that," he says. "Anything more than that keeps this thing on the front page too long . . . I'm certainly not going to discard it. But I'm also not going to say the sky is falling and we should all put our houses up for sale and get the hell out of town."

Exactly 2.5 miles from Joe Sacco's perfect neighborhood, on a dusty stretch of Miller Road, is another recently built clump of houses. It consists of four two-story homes, which sit next to a row of smaller, single-story boxes built in the 1960s. The new construction is within a mile of the companies whose names come up when people start talking about cancer. Ford is just up Miller Road. Reliant, Geon, and Noveon, which makes industrial chemicals, are just an after-dinner walk away.

But the families who live in the new houses don't need to walk much farther than their backyards to find hazards.

In the 1950s, before Avon Lake grew into an up-and-coming suburb, the city used an eight-acre plot just east of Miller Road as its dump. Along with residential waste, trees, and brush, it allowed companies to dump industrial waste there. Ohio EPA records show that BFGoodrich, which produced cancer-causing vinyl chloride, dumped 100 tons of waste into the landfill between 1954 and 1964. (A report produced by Goodrich says the only waste dumped into the landfill was organic paper and plastic resins, which the company calls nonhazardous.)

The landfill closed in 1976, but the dumping mysteriously continued. In 1980, U.S. EPA investigators found that "sewer sludge had been dumped at the site on a regular basis," records show. The hazardous sludge contained heavy metals, including "high levels of cadmium," known to cause a number of cancers. Investigators identified surface-water contamination, but they gave the site a "low priority for site inspection," records show. It made it onto the U.S. EPA's superfund list. But as with many of those sites, nothing has happened since.

"There's only so many federal resources to go around," says Mick Hans, a U.S. EPA spokesman in Chicago. "We have to go where we're most resourceful. It's a big country, with a lot of industry."

That left inspection up to the state or local government. Due to previous stories on the agency's failures, the Ohio EPA refuses to speak to Scene reporters. But the agency's records show no effort to monitor the site. And officials in Avon Lake, Lorain County, and the City of Lorain, which oversees environmental health in Avon Lake, say they don't monitor it either.

The dump's history has been mostly forgotten -- but not by Hoyle Upton. As a kid in the 1960s, Upton spent his summers helping his dad do landscaping. When they packed Dad's truck with all the brush it could hold, they drove to the landfill.

Upton's uncle ran the dump. While the two older men hoisted beers and caught up with each other, Upton, 12 at the time, caught frogs or tadpoles. "Don't go over by that green water," his uncle would always say.

The green water never meant much to Upton -- at least not until the 1990s, when kids started getting sick in Avon Lake. Now 53, he remembers seeing drums labeled "BFGoodrich," and he can still smell the stench of the mysterious green water. "Rotten eggs," he says as he walks down a muddy road near the dump.

Upton was concerned that his uncle, who has since died, may have looked the other way in exchange for kickbacks from illegal dumpers. He feared that he might be sitting on the key that could unlock Avon Lake's cancer mystery. So two years ago, he finally mustered the courage to e-mail the Ohio EPA to ask about the dump's history. The agency pointed him to its files that chronicled contamination. He then turned to Mayor Berner. But, he says, the mayor blew him off. (Berner says that he doesn't remember the conversation.)

"They're not doin' a damn thing," says Upton, a welder at the nearby Ford plant. He drives past the dump each day on his way to work. "As long as they keep slapping up houses, they're not gonna rock the boat."

Today, the dump sits behind a rusty barbed-wire fence, tucked between the power plant and the Miller Road homes. A small patch of woods separates the dump from the new homeowners' backyards.

When construction began on the homes a few years back, Upton wondered: How much did the builder, Gamer Construction, reveal when it sold houses so close to a hazardous-waste site? He's always wanted to knock on the new residents' doors and tell them: You've got a bomb in your backyard. He never has.

Robert Gamer, who owns Gamer Construction, refused to comment on how much he knew about the landfill, or how much he told buyers.

Eric O'Hare, the realtor who sells Gamer's houses, says that environment and health concerns rarely come up when he sells in Avon Lake -- even on Miller Road.

"I normally don't mention it, unless they bring it up," he says. "The landfill and the smokestacks have never come up. I didn't even know there was a landfill back there."

Brad Luznar knew. He works for Gamer and owns one of the four houses. He grew up in Avon Lake and knew about that landfill. He even heard rumors about the hazardous waste. But he wasn't going to pass up a chance to build a house in his hometown. As long as they don't dig up the dump, he figures, he'll be fine.

Luznar's sister bought the house next door -- she knew about the landfill too, along with the nearby plants. She wasn't concerned either.

"You've got the power plant there, the Ford plant there, you've got chemical plants there," Mayor Berner says. "It's not hard for people to see what's there."

But Susan Whealy isn't from Avon Lake. She moved to town last year, from a suburb of Detroit, to take a job at a TV station. She loves her new house, especially the woods behind it -- a little bit of country in the middle of suburbia.

When she bought it, she could see the plants, but not the landfill -- and certainly not what's buried there. Her realtor didn't know about it either, so she never mentioned it. If she had, "Would that have changed my mind?" Whealy asks. "I don't know. Maybe."

Meanwhile, a fourth new house is still for sale, next door to Whealy's. It's a pretty two-story with tall trees, lots of windows, and plenty of room for a hoop and a yellow lab. It's listed at $255,000. O'Hare expects it to sell soon, but he won't mention the landfill.

"It's not my place to do that," he says. "If they want to do their own research, they can."

In the middle of the morning, when the kids are at school and the house is shriek-free, Maria Bender leans her head back, resting a mane of curly brown hair on the back of a kitchen chair. She admits that she's tired, and you get the feeling that she hasn't acknowledged this in a while. Not out loud, anyway.

Bender is only 38, but she is skilled at the delicate art of putting up a motherly front. At 10 in the morning, her cheeks are rosy, her lips shiny with lipstick, her toes painted perfectly pink. Her gray two-story sits in a pristine neighborhood with no cars on the street and no fences dividing one house from another.

Inside, it's spotless -- there are just a few notes stuck to the refrigerator and one lonely stack of papers on the kitchen counter. You can imagine that stack driving Maria Bender crazy.

"You put on a play for people . . ." she says. "You don't want people to see your weaknesses." She is talking about her ability to keep things in order. She is also talking about her ability to make people forget that she has cancer.

Last March, during a routine physical, a doctor felt a lump in Bender's neck. She was quickly diagnosed with thyroid cancer. A surgeon removed the tumor, but it had already spread. Bender underwent radioactive-isotope treatment. The isotope made her nauseous and unable to sleep -- she dozed off for no more than 14 hours the entire week of treatment, she says.

Most agonizing was that the treatment, which can expose others to radioactive waves, forced her to stay away from her three children. She saw them only once, in a park. The kids sat under a tree, 15 feet away from Mom. "It was hard, because they looked at me strange," Bender says. "They can't see the radioactive waves coming from me, but you could tell they were afraid to come near me."

The night she was allowed to be with them again, "They lay in bed with me the entire night," she says. They are only 8, 10, and 12. But "you could feel that they got it, just by not letting go and hugging me."

Bender, like Sacco, had heard stories about Avon Lake. Her family moved from North Olmsted seven years ago, knowing only whispers of the rare cancer cases of the '90s. Today, those whispers sound like screams.

In her neighborhood alone, she counts 10 people fighting cancer -- including one case of childhood leukemia, two childhood brain tumors, an ovarian cancer, and six cases of breast cancer. She knows of 42 people fighting cancer in Avon Lake alone. "You start feeling a little nervous."

She understands that cancer is common, that one out of every three people will contract it. However, it's usually concentrated among the aged, not children and young mothers. So she can't help but ask questions.

"Is there poison in the soil or in the air or in the water? Is there a trigger in our environment? . . . You get a little paranoid sometimes, wondering."

Besides paranoia, something else is swelling in Bender's subdivision. After she was diagnosed, Bender noticed that because so many neighbors already knew someone fighting cancer, they responded with great calm and speed to her fight. They cooked her meals, did her house-work, took the kids wherever they needed to go. No matter how hard she tried to hide it, everyone knew she was sick, and everyone knew how to help. "You find out who has cancer," she says, "and just say, 'Okay, how long is the treatment?'"

When his daughter was diagnosed, Joe Sacco says, strangers bearing meals showed up at his door. An eight-year-old neighbor down the street donated her birthday presents -- all of them -- to children with cancer.

So while they wait, wondering what the state's report will tell them, both Sacco and Bender also know the likely truth: They aren't going anywhere.

"I couldn't imagine leaving," Bender says. "I still encourage people to move here. You still have that down-home, old-fashioned community here. And you can't put a price on that."

By late last year, Megan Graff was already thinking about moving. She and her husband wanted something bigger for their growing family. But they weren't in a hurry -- at least not until Graff's list of the sick started to grow.

A biology major in college, Graff knows enough science to know that prenatal exposure to harmful chemicals can be dangerous to a baby's health. She was pregnant for much of her family's first three years in Avon Lake.

Last year, as she learned more about the city's pollution, she and her family moved to neighboring Avon. The worries and the lack of answers were "kind of the final straw," she says.

But Graff still craves answers. She has to know that something in the air -- or the ground or the water -- hasn't already made her kids sick, that cancer isn't just waiting until someone's fourth birthday to send her family for blood tests. She must keep asking questions. Otherwise, she says, "Nothing's going to change. And I'm not going to live in fear."

Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles

Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.