Arsenic Capital

Meet the proud residents of the nation's arsenic capital. Now, will someone please explain to these good people why poison's a bad thing?


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America’s Little (Well…) Actually Kind of Serious (Um…) Maybe It’s Worse Than We Thought (Hmmm…) Pretty Damn Big (Gulp!) Arsenic Problem

THE MOST BEAUTIFUL THING ABOUT Fallon, Nevada, population 8,300, is how ordinary it is—how old-timey and rock-ribbed. Sure, the main drag, U.S. 50, is a four-lane highway lined with modern American cheesemongers: Wal-Mart, Safeway, Taco Bell, McDonald’s. But look past that gaudy facade. Stand out on Williams Avenue some morning, early, when the casino traffic is slow and the little sprinklers on every green lawn are going swish-swish-swish against the brutal, oncoming desert sun, and gaze north toward Rattlesnake Hill. There on top, hard by the municipal water tanks, stands a 50-foot-high steel crucifix. The city owns that cross, and every Good Friday since 1924 a small flock of pilgrims has journeyed from the town cemetery up to its base. Follow their route a ways and pretty soon you’ll come into the old town center, built just after the Newlands Irrigation Project of 1903 diverted Truckee River water to Fallon, turning it into a patchwork of alfalfa and corn fields, the self-described “Oasis of Nevada.”

Oh, what an oasis it seems. There’s an Elks Club and a VFW Hall, of course, and over at the Lariat Motel the reader board blares GOD BLESS AMERICA. Good idea. The little towns of America need blessing, every one of them. But Fallon…let’s just say Fallon could use something more—like a ritual cleansing. The reason is nefarious indeed: arsenic. In a nation where more than 3,000 municipalities were found in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act as recently as 1998, piping water tainted with illegal levels of pollutants ranging from lead to cryptosporidium, Fallon has a greater concentration of arsenic in its drinking water than any other town its size or larger in the United States. Its municipal reserves contain 100 parts per billion. It sounds miniscule, but that 100 ppb is toxic enough, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, to pose a 2 percent cancer risk above the national norm to anyone who spends 30 years drinking it. You can’t see the poison and you can’t smell it, but it’s there, slowly weakening Fallonites’ immune systems, and scientists are fretfully analyzing it.

The University of California at Berkeley Arsenic Health Effects Research Program is now studying the “water consumption patterns…cigarette smoking, chlorination of drinking water, diet, and occupational history” of 200 northern Nevada residents suffering from severe bladder maladies, 15 of them from the Fallon area. The Berkeley study is focused on bladder cancer—which renders patients’ urine putrid, speckled with blood, and afloat with thimble-size flecks of flesh—and views arsenic as the culprit. Nevada state epidemiologist Randall Todd is also investigating whether arsenic is behind a severe increase in children’s leukemia cases. Six Fallon-area children were diagnosed with the disease between March and July of last year; no other rural Nevada county has ever reported more than one case in a year. “Fallon,” pronounces Jon Merkle, an EPA environmental scientist, “is the Mount Everest of arsenic situations. No other U.S. city comes close.”

Well, almost. According to a recent Natural Resources Defense Council list (dubbed “Arsenic and Old Laws”), the University of Oklahoma in Norman comes in with the second-highest arsenic level, at 78 ppb, followed closely by Cheney, Kansas, at 65 ppb. The Berkeley folks are also studying 200 bladder cancer patients in Kings County, northern California, where arsenic levels reach 50 ppb. But no other community is situated on top of a water source as toxic as the Basalt Aquifer, a 15-mile-long underground pool that sloshes through the arsenic-rich rock beneath Fallon.

Still, Mayor Ken Tedford is the picture of small-town placidity. An ample, genial fellow, he sips his coffee out of a white mug labeled—you guessed it—MAYOR. Sometimes he comes to the office straight from his tire shop down the street, wearing his Goodyear Tires shirt. He’s so respected, he ran unopposed in the last election. At the moment, however, the mayor is perspiring. I’m asking him if he drinks the water.

“Look,” he says, “I drink the water, and I’m more at risk from the Diet Pepsi I drink all day. People have been drinking a little arsenic here for a long time.”

It’s true. Arsenic is common throughout the arid mining country of the West and is laced through the soil of the Great Plains, New England, and central California. In fact, 22 million Americans drink arsenic-tainted groundwater every day. And now, more than 26 years after President Gerald Ford signed the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA is finally coming to their aid. By June 21, 2001, the agency is expected to lower its limit for what it considers a safe level of arsenic in drinking water from 50 to 5 parts per billion.

Water providers, both public and private, won’t have to bear the cost of this decree immediately. Large providers—those serving 10,000 or more users—will need to comply with the new arsenic standard by 2004; smaller providers, like Fallon’s Municipal Water Department, will have until 2006. What’s more, the EPA currently has $4.6 billion, allocated by Congress, to loan to communities that need to upgrade. But with more than 6,000 water suppliers, most of them rural, faced with having to install new systems to filter or dilute their water, the costs will escalate quickly. The EPA estimates that the necessary changes will cost the suppliers and their clients $374 million annually for the next 20 years.

Fallon is already feeling the financial squeeze. In a stern letter last August, the EPA informed Mayor Tedford that Fallon must meet the current standard of 50 ppb—in other words, build a filtration plant costing between $7 and $10 million—by September 2003 or face fines of up to $27,500 per day. The city has pledged to meet the new limits and has already secured $1.4 million in federal funding, but building and operating a new treatment plant could cost each household as much as $3,000 over the next 20 years. No matter what they end up doing—raising citizens’ water bills, issuing a bond, or appealing to the EPA for more loans—it’s going to be expensive.

“With a timetable like theirs, don’t you think they’re just trying to punish a small-town mayor?” Mayor Tedford peers up at me, his brown eyes as soft and plaintive as a wounded badger’s. “If we build this plant, our water bills skyrocket. We lose the Oasis of Nevada. Our town turns to dust.”

I ask the mayor how he’d feel if some of his neighbors died of arsenic poisoning before Fallon’s filtration plant was finished. “It won’t happen,” he says. “Arsenic isn’t a health problem here. I mean, where are all the dead bodies?”

Tedford’s answers sound rehearsed—or worse, callous and evasive—but they are based on an unwavering loyalty. After all, his grandfather, a mulepacker who emigrated to Fallon from Nova Scotia in 1911, was one of the town’s earliest mayors, and his uncle also served in the post. How could the current Mayor Tedford concede that the water coming down from the Old Rugged Cross is poison? How could anyone? In the only vote Fallon has ever held on arsenic, a 1979 ballot measure that asked if residents wanted a filtration plant, 95 percent voted no.

“My wife drank this water through four pregnancies, and all of my children are fine,” the mayor says. Our time is up. He stands to guide me to the door, then stops to point out a photo of himself looking somewhat starstruck and goofy-grinned beside four hoary men, his mayoral predecessors. “Now, if arsenic was really a problem,” he asks, “don’t you think these guys would have done something about it?”

AH, DENIAL. IT’S AN IMPULSE that has guided not only the city of Fallon, but the federal government’s arsenic policies for nearly four decades. The 50 ppb arsenic limit was originally set in 1942 by the U.S. Public Health Service. Since 1962, when the Public Health Service first suggested reducing the limit to 10 ppb, the feds have become more fully aware that drinking arsenic-laden water can lead to bladder, skin, lung, kidney, and liver cancer.

So what’s been holding them back? Not surprisingly, a 57,000-member trade group called the American Water Works Association, which has consistently decried the costly prospect of treating water for arsenic. The American Water Works Research Foundation, a think tank funded largely by water utilities, has also helped stall the EPA by giving it extra homework—asking questions about, say, the arsenic content in food and the difference between the myriad molecular types of the toxin. “They’re not the tobacco industry; they do some good science,” says Paul Mushak, a North Carolina toxicology consultant who’s been cowriting arsenic studies for the EPA since 1981. “But they also glom onto issues that complicate things.”

And the last thing the EPA needs is more complications. “There’s a mind-set of economic caution there,” says Mushak. “There’s a big division in the Office of Drinking Water between the toxicologists and the engineers, and the engineers’ attitude is, ‘If you can convince us one-hundred-point-zero percent that we should lower the standard, we will. But not until then.'”

Sufficient proof took the better part of a century. In June 1999, the National Academy of Sciences published an exhaustive analysis of hundreds of arsenic studies going all the way back to 1887, when the British Medical Journal first reported the results of a dubious treatment for arsenic-caused skin cancer (“Both hands were amputated; the patient died 18 months later…”). The linchpin was a 1968 research project conducted by the Taiwan Health Ministry which examined 40,000 villagers who had drawn water from arsenic-tainted wells for at least 45 years; it definitively proved that arsenic causes skin cancer. The Academy’s 1999 report was clear: The current arsenic limit “does not achieve EPA’s goal for public-health protection and, therefore, requires downward revision as promptly as possible.” The toxicologists in the Office of Drinking Water had been vindicated.

But old errors linger, hauntingly. The worst arsenic problem the world now faces developed out of a well-meaning but ultimately misguided UNICEF project begun during the 1970s. To wean Bangladeshi villagers off the pond and river water they shared with cows and buffalo, UNICEF helped construct over a million tube wells without testing the groundwater for arsenic. Now, more than 35 million people are drinking water that contains 100 or more ppb of arsenic, and cancer rates in Bangladesh have soared. Tens of thousands of people have skin spotted like spoiled fruit, with warts and sores covering their hands and feet. Allan Smith, director of Berkeley’s Arsenic Health Effects Research Program, who has done fieldwork in Bangladesh, grimly predicts that hundreds of thousands could die with prolonged exposure. “High levels of arsenic in drinking water pose one of the biggest environmental cancer risks ever found,” he says.

Do the good people of Fallon somehow have the pluck to transcend this risk? Bruce Macler, a drinking-water toxicologist for the EPA, answers with an emphatic no. “With the exception of tobacco,” he says, “arsenic is probably the most proven toxin in the world. But that doesn’t mean you can point to a smoking gun in Fallon. The problem is that 25 to 30 percent of the population nationwide gets cancer. You lose the arsenic-caused cancer in the noise of other cancers, and except in extreme cases—something like the epidemic in Bangladesh—you can’t establish cause and effect. You stem epidemics by managing risk in the face of uncertainty. Fallon needs to do that. Until it does, people will die of arsenic poisoning.”

Which brings us back to denial. Many small towns will openly shirk the new laws for as long as they can. Brian Maas, the director of water enforcement for the EPA, is braced for a fight. “This is a tough regulation for people to swallow,” he says. “The arsenic is naturally occurring. Nobody did anything wrong to get it there, so people don’t feel they should have to pay to remove it. And how can I make them? If you do the math, the EPA is nobody. I’ve got 70 people working for me—75 on a good day—and that’s for all water laws, not just arsenic. In a given year, we have 20,000 providers in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. So yeah, we’ll have arsenic violators.”

Including Fallon?

“Absolutely not,” Maas says. “Once we go after somebody, we don’t give up. We’ll bring Fallon into compliance.”

TO WHICH THE CITIZENRY responds: Not so fast, EPA man. Antifederalism is something of a local tradition in Fallon. The town’s earliest pioneers came from back East, New Englanders drawn to Nevada’s Lahontan Valley in the early 1900s by the U.S. Reclamation Service, whose Newlands Irrigation Project promised “boundless opportunities” for farmers willing to charm potatoes, carrots, asparagus, and celery out of the desert. The promise was bogus. The soil turned saline, the crops were scraggly, and the yeomanry got riled. By 1915, Fallon farmers seriously considered forming a militia to wrest control of the dams and canals along the Truckee and Carson Rivers from the federal government. A handful of farmers and ranchers managed to eke out a living, and still do; nowadays they sardonically refer to the feds as “the Mafia.”

But walking the streets of Fallon one morning, I found that, to many locals, poison is not funny. “I don’t even give this water to my dog,” said one shop owner. Inside the Overland Hotel, a woman slumped on a bar stool and sucking on a cigarette told me she bathes her three-year-old in bottled water. A motel desk clerk protested that even though he only showers in the local water, the skin on his hands is always dry and cracking; at times it bleeds. “I feel nothing but itching all over my body,” he said.

None of these people would give their names, perhaps for good reason. Every day, the Lahontan Valley News runs a column called Sound Off!, in which the vitriolic remarks made by anonymous callers to a voice-mail box at the paper are printed for all to read. Arsenic is a favorite topic in Sound Off!, and worrywarts a favorite target. In one recent issue, for instance, when a reader reported losing his or her mother to arsenic poisoning, a subsequent caller asked to see a copy of the autopsy report, adding, “There has never been a reported fatality from arsenic in the city water system.” Another caller flatly averred that Fallon is getting “shafted” by the EPA.

No doubt both of these social theoreticians are fans of Dr. Gary Ridenour, an internist whose office sits on the south end of town. Ridenour is something of a cult hero in Fallon. When he first moved to Nevada from St. Louis 18 years ago, his only claim to fame was being the primary care physician for the late wrestling great André the Giant. He has since gained some notoriety. In 1993, a federal grand jury accused him of illegally distributing diazepam, the antianxiety drug best known by the brand name Valium, and of owning an unregistered sawed-off shotgun. Ridenour stood his ground. “I’m not guilty and I’m going fishing,” he told the Lahontan Valley News that July. One hundred and fifty people called him to offer support. After he pleaded guilty to the illegal distribution charge a year later, his appointment book remained full.

Dr. Gary, as he is known, is a short, stout 53-year-old with a wispy beard and a wry grin. When I visited him one afternoon in his office, he had a set of prepared remarks scrawled on a legal pad—a spiel he has no doubt recited many times before, but with no less glee. Ridenour does not dispute that Fallon has arsenic in its water; he disputes the EPA’s claims that the toxin needs to be regulated. “The feds want to control our lives,” he announced, a pair of reading glasses riding low on his nose. “This arsenic scare—it’s just big government trying to tell locals how to take care of their citizens. It’s bad medicine.”

On the bookshelf behind him, Dr. Gary had a collection of snake oil bottles—a shrine featuring Hamlin’s Wizard Oil and The Great Doctor Kilmer’s Swamp Root. Next to that hung a chilling poster depicting a Nazi SS officer and a gun-toting official from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms wearing identical snarls. Its caption: “Poland, Warsaw Ghetto, 1944. America, Waco, Texas, 1993.”

“Arsenic!” Ridenour blurted. “It’s ridiculous. In 18 years of office visits, 30 patients a day, I’ve never seen anyone test high for arsenic. I’ve checked the blood serum on 200 people—nothing. If they want to address a real health problem here, why don’t they go out to Sand Springs Mountain, 30 miles away, and clean up the two pounds of unexploded plutonium left from the underground nuclear test they did in 1963? They don’t do that because that would cost too much money. This arsenic thing, it’s an easy kill for them. They just go into a few rural communities and say, ‘Shut down your wells.’ And then—bingo!—they’ve got a high-profile victory.”

The doctor had a point. Fifty years ago, the U.S. government laid claim to huge swaths of Nevada desert, bombed it, littered it with radioactive waste, and turned it into a top-secret playground for “black ops” (see Area 51). Considering the proximity of Sand Springs Mountain, one would think the government would have tested Fallon’s water for traces of plutonium. Apparently not. According to the EPA’s Jon Merkle, plutonium testing is not required, so no one’s done it.

“Here in Nevada,” Ridenour said, “there used to be a group called NEVER: Nevadans Ever Vigilant, Ever Resistant. That spirit, I think, is still alive. The water here is safe. I drink it every day and my only complaint is that it makes scotch and water taste, well, a little off.” He paused, smirking at me over his reading glasses.

“Off?” I said.

Ridenour tipped his head back slightly, like a wine connoisseur searching for the mot juste. “It’s just… a little blunter,” he said. “That’s it—it’s blunter.”

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.”

THE WHOLE TIME I was in Fallon, I couldn’t get a photo from the Lahontan Valley News out of my mind. It was of an ancient, sun-shriveled individual sitting in a crowded auditorium, being honored as “Eldest County Resident.” Here must be the town’s foremost survivor, I thought. Here was a person who had thrived while drinking poisonous water. I felt that I had to raise a glass of Fallon’s finest with her.

Her name was Penelope Venturacci. An Italian immigrant, she had lived in Fallon since 1927, when she and her husband Edward came west to start a ranch. Now, at 99, she spent her afternoons at her daughter Rena Bell’s home, on D Street. On my last day in town, I grabbed the two wax-paper-wrapped glasses in my room at the Lariat and drove over to Rena’s small ranch house.

Penelope was inside on the wraparound couch, perched in front of the big-screen TV, a bottle of Aquafina at her side. She couldn’t talk to me, really. A stroke in 1993 reduced her voice to a scarcely audible squeak; she now communicated mostly in Italian, through her daughter, but the language barrier somehow afforded us a warm rapport. Gradually it became clear that there were two distinct chapters to her life: the years before “the accident,” a time of hope and of hard work on the ranch; and the years since, a time of sadness and loneliness, and of grimly following her doctor’s orders to drink only bottled water.

“Is it OK,” I asked Rena, “if she just has a sip?”

“Oh, it’s OK,” said Rena.

I unwrapped the glasses and filled them up at the sink. And then—why not?—I exclaimed, “Salute!

Salute!” Penelope responded.

We drank. And then Penelope Venturacci choked. Her eyes bulged, and she began to cough violently. I watched in rapt terror as her daughter slapped at her back—whap, whap, whap—until eventually the old woman sat upright and, smiling, squeaked one more time. Her daughter translated.

“That,”she said, pointing at the Aquafina, “comes in a bottle; it’s filtered. But that“—she pointed now at the tap water—”it is good. It comes from the earth.”   

Bill Donahue related the strange tale of Lloyd Pye and his Starchild in May 2000.