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Petaluma Fever

County gives Payran area residents a clean bill of health, despite charges of an official coverup

By Dawn Pillsbury

RESIDENTS of the flood-plagued Payran area are not ill because of any discernible environmental cause, the Sonoma County Department of Health Services has found. Still a handful of residents reportedly are charging that the county is covering up the truth. J. J. Krug, director of environmental health for Sonoma County, says that though the department looked carefully for any commonality or pattern in the illnesses reported by Payran residents to the department hotline, it did not find any.

"It's not unusual for people to notice something unusual," he explains. "The classic example is a cancer cluster. Then you go in and you might find something that was giving people cancer. But we didn't find anything."

Krug says the department could not run its own tests of the area because the reported symptoms did not point to any probable environmental cause. "It would be like trying to hit a piñata blindfolded," he says. "You have to know what to test for before you go in."

Daymon Doss, CEO of the Petaluma Health Care District, says the cases came to the district's attention about a month ago, when a woman phoned a district triage nurse to report symptoms and said others in her area had similar problems. The district nurse informed a Health Services nurse, and the department authorized testing of any Payran resident who had similar complaints.

Reported symptoms include gastrointestinal problems, various coldlike and flulike symptoms, upper respiratory distress, shortness of breath, skin rashes, polyps, burning eyes, migraines, and anxiety.

"The county was looking for a commonality of symptoms," Doss says. "As far as I know, they didn't find any."

He adds that several of the residents who complained of symptoms are district patients, and their cases will be followed up individually.

But some local residents--already distrustful of public officials after repeated mishandling of flood relief in the flood-prone neighborhood--have complained to the press that they believe the county is covering up the truth.

AS FOR PAYRAN residents' criticism of official handling of the symptoms, Doss says: "The department was very straightforward with us."

The project under way in the Payran neighborhood that has some residents concerned is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' and the city of Petaluma's flood-control project between Lynch Creek and the railroad bridge south of Lakeville Street.

The Petaluma River has flooded the neighborhood five times in the past 20 years in a neighborhood in which about 1,000 people live.

Some 600 residential and commercial buildings are built on the 100-year floodplain. The project is scheduled to be completed next year. Tom Hargis, director of water resources and conservation for Petaluma, says that the Army Corps of Engineers did extensive testing of the Payran basin soil in conjunction with the project.

The only toxin discovered was from two abandoned diesel tanks, which he says were removed along with the contaminated soil around them.

"We do know the workers who have been in constant contact with the soil have not had those illnesses--none of our workers and none of the Army Corps of Engineers'," Hargis says.

Mike Osborn, whose house backs on the river, says he has not had any problems because of the river. "Nobody around here has had any illness because of it," he says. "And I know almost everyone on the block." But, he says, he does not allow his 3-year-old daughter to play in the river, or even go near it.

The hotline for Payran residents who are suffering possibly related symptoms is 575-4747.

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From the June 29-July 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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