THROUGH THE CENTURIES, arsenic has killed far more than the taste of mixed drinks. A basic component of Planet Earth—it inhabits slot number 33 on the periodic table—arsenic stepped onto the human stage in the eighth century when an Arab alchemist named Gber distilled a white powder called arsenous oxide. It soon became the poison of choice, along with strychnine, for murderers. Among its most famous victims were Napoléon Bonaparte and Emma Bovary, whose fictional demise Gustave Flaubert described with excruciating accuracy: "She grew whiter than the sheet her clenched fingers were digging into. Her tongue hung at full-length from her mouth; her rolling eyes grew dim like the globes of two lamps about to go out." This would have undoubtedly been followed by erythematous skin eruptions, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, muscular cramps, and swelling of the eyelids, hands, and feet.
Terry Bennett Jackson, a 48-year-old Fallon homemaker, has endured her own brand of torture. In 1966, when she was 13, Jackson lived on a small ranch outside Fallon that had a well drilled straight into the heart of the Basalt Aquifer. One day she came home from school with brown splotches on her neck. "The kids are making fun of me," she told her mother, "and I can't wash the spots off. I'm not going back to school until you find out what's wrong with me."
A full week of medical tests ensued. Finally, at a doctor's behest, Jackson's mother had the water her family had been drinking for three years tested. It contained, she learned, 2,750 ppb of arsenic; the well sat on a mineral deposit 27 times more arsenic-rich than the ground underlying Fallon's municipal tanks. The damage was done. Jackson's stepfather contracted bladder cancer in 1980 (he's currently in remission); Terry and her mother have battled skin cancer for years.
"The arsenic settled in my organs," Jackson told me one morning as we sat in the living room of her split-level home just north of town. She was soft-spoken and sounded more weary than angry about what has happened to her. "Every day in eighth grade I had to make two trips to the school nurse for these shots that were supposed to pull the poison out like a magnet. The shots were extremely painful....My mother tried to convince the city there was a problem, but they just laughed her off. They didn't want to face up to it."
Now, of course, they have to. When the EPA ordered Fallon last August to reduce the arsenic level in its water, the agency also stipulated that the city provide monthly progress reports on its search for an "arsenic removal method." Last September, the city looked into two possible methods: "enhanced coagulation," in which metal salts are dissolved in the water to attract arsenic particles, and "strong-base anion exchange," in which the water is run through a resin that captures the arsenic. In its November report, Fallon said it was testing enhanced coagulation. Arsenic-free water is a long way off, but the city has grudgingly agreed to meet the EPA's 2003 deadline. "We're certainly gonna try," says Mayor Tedford.
Terry Bennett Jackson isn't convinced. "I think they're stupid," she said of Fallon's sluggish city fathers. "I don't want to be here."