By Kristina Webb
It was enough to send chills up the spine of even the most persistent skeptic, and seemed like a scene from a movie: Erin Brockovich, famed environmental activist, asked a crowd of almost 1,500 to raise their hands if they knew of or had someone in their family who was seriously ill.
At that moment, while the only sound heard was the clicking of photographers’ shutters, hands shot into the air throughout the auditorium.
“I want you all to look around the room,” Brockovich said. “You’re not alone.”
Brockovich, subject of a film starring Julia Roberts and based on Brockovich’s fight to help a polluted town in California, came to the Palm Beach County Convention Center Thursday night to speak to residents of The Acreage.
This rural community in western Palm Beach County has recently been the subject of discussion after an unusual number of children in the area developed brain tumors.
One of the driving forces behind the movement is Jennifer Dunsford.
Dunsford’s son Garrett was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor at the age of 5. As Garrett was undergoing treatment, Dunsford talked to other area mothers and found that several children in the surrounding neighborhood also had brain tumors.
“When the fourth child was diagnosed in Dec. 2008, I decided to ask around and see if there were others who were sick,” Dunsford said. “I found out two of my neighbors who live on the street behind my house had brain tumors. One of the adults died of brain cancer in 2005. That’s when I knew we had a problem.”
Brockovich said that she became involved when she saw the level of enthusiasm from concerned parents.
“It started out with your community activists, your mothers, and they reminded me so much of me,” Brockovich said.
Thursday’s meeting addressed concerns that high levels of radioactive elements in the water are possibly behind the spike in serious illnesses among residents of The Acreage. Representatives from New York law firm Weitz and Luxenberg were on hand to provide residents with independent test results.
The firm’s results were very similar to those of a study done by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP): 10 percent of homes tested had unsafe levels of radiation.
“No level of radiation is safe,” Brockovich said.
Several speakers at the meeting noted that cancer is not the only problem.
Palm Beach Atlantic University student Katrina Wall, a junior who commutes daily from her home in The Acreage, attended the meeting with her parents. Wall’s mother has hypothyroidism, one of several conditions the community fears is caused by radiation.
“It’s frightening to think about,” Wall said.
Many concerns were raised, including chemical spraying, pets with cancer, proximity of power lines to homes and the possibility of making the move to city water.
“No stone should go unturned, and no story should go untold,” Brockovich said, adding that until further testing can be done, residents who choose to stay should turn to bottled water.
Acreage resident Stephanie Osberg said that she is “adamant” to see her community placed on city water. If not, Osberg said that like so many other residents, she will move.
“Money can be made,” Osberg said. “You can’t salvage your health.”