Bitter Harvest

Four Huntington Beach kids have died of a rare disease. Officials say theres no pattern. The parents say the answer could be underground

This is how it is at birth: you're receiving into your hands a child, and from there you can see this amazing arc, a pyrotechnic display of pure possibility, always upward, without end, featuring images of success and happiness—kindergarten, high school, a graduation, maybe a wedding. And then the arc vanishes into vagueness. Because at this point, all you're thinking about is the boundless potential wrapped up in your child. You're not thinking about death.

So when the arc of Trent Olson's life slowed and started inexplicably downward in January 2002—after just four years on this planet—when his smile disappeared and Trent began to throw tantrums, the last thing his parents were thinking about was mortality.

"I was told he had a behavioral problem," said Trent's mother, Cheri-Jan Olson, a licensed nurse who lives in Huntington Beach. Olson tried to schedule an appointment but wasn't able to arrange one quickly. As Trent's arc continued inexorably downward, even picked up speed, Olson became convinced his problem wasn't psychological. Trent was increasingly withdrawn. He went to bed early without eating dinner, slept all night and then woke up exhausted. When he played, Olson "knew something wasn't right. He would run crooked, with his head cocked to one side and looking out of one eye."

When she dropped Trent off at her church's preschool, he would scream, refusing to let go of her hand. A bystander told Olson to call a child behavioral specialist at UC Irvine. Over the phone, after hearing about Trent's behavioral changes, the specialist told Olson, "You don't need a child psychologist. You need a neurologist."

In the first week of May, Olson brought Trent to a neurologist who tested his reflexes and watched him try to run down the hall. "Trent was running like a crab, and right away she said, 'He needs an MRI tomorrow.'" The next morning, Olson drove her son to Miller's Children's Hospital in Long Beach. She convinced doctors to allow her to stay with him while they ran an MRI scan of his head.

"The nurses were thanking me because I was able to comfort him," Olson said. "I sang to him and caressed him, and he lay perfectly still because he was such a good boy. I was watching him sleep, and I was praying. Then this guy comes in and says, 'Your child has an inoperable brain tumor.' I looked at the MRI screen, and there was this big white golf ball in the middle of the screen. It was so surreal. I was so calm."

When Olson and her husband returned home from the hospital that night, there were 19 messages on the answering machine. One of them was from Susan Junghans. Olson had never met Junghans but had heard about her from a mutual friend at church and knew that Junghans' son David had died in October 2000 of brain stem glioma, a rare cancer with a 0 percent survival rate.

"Susan was the only person I called," Olson said.

Trent, it turned out, was the fourth child in the same Huntington Beach neighborhood diagnosed with brain stem glioma in just two years. All three other kids had died within months of diagnosis.

"When women hear their child has terminal cancer, some need to be sedated," Olson said. "They get hysterical. Everybody does different things. I was just in shock. But when I heard we had child No. 4, I refused to believe it was just dumb luck."

In June 2003, Trent Olson died, just 13 months after his diagnosis. In the previous two years, three other children in southeast Huntington Beach died from the same rare disease. Five-year-old Spencer Stockton died first, in February 2000. Eight months later, David Junghans, 11, passed away. Nine-year-old Nikki Ott died in March 2001.

Brain stem glioma is incredibly rare—between 200 and 400 cases are reported nationwide each year—yet here were four children in the same neighborhood with the same disease in just two years.

Officials say there's no pattern; the parents aren't convinced. They say Huntington Beach is killing their kids.

They've found at least two connections between the four cases. One is their southeast Huntington Beach neighborhood, much of which was once the site of extensive oil drilling. But there was another, more compelling link: Edison Community Park. It's your typical municipal park—baseball and soccer fields, picnic tables, fire pits, and a playground. It also happens to be across the street from an ugly reminder of Huntington Beach's industrial past: the Ascon/Nesi Hazardous Waste Site.

Sixty years ago, HB was little more than an oil field, owned and operated by well-connected corporations whose fortunes determined the pace of the nation's economic progress. Low oil prices were key to California's—and America's—efforts to survive the Great Depression and emerge as the world's leading industrial and military power after World War II.

In 1938, the oil companies started dumping their excess oil waste in an anonymous hillside dump operated by a company called Garrish Bros. Oil drilling was an unregulated industry in those days, and for decades, the oil companies filled the site's five 25-foot-deep lagoons with highly toxic oil and construction waste.

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