By Kristina Webb
A map covered the wall of a guest bedroom on the first floor of Jennifer Dunsford’s house.
Although not updated since December, the map looked as though it had a horrible case of the chicken pox. Blue, red and yellow dots were scattered across the expanse, representing different types of cancer diagnosed in The Acreage, a rural community in western Palm Beach County.
“We are bombarded,” Dunsford said, adding the cause may come from an abundance of factors surrounding her neighborhood, also home to several Palm Beach Atlantic University students.
“All this used to be orange groves, and the high school sits on an orange grove,” Dunsford said. “For me to sit there and point a finger, I just can’t. But for me to say it’s a combination, maybe not just one factor, but I do think the environment is a big issue.”
U.S. Senator Bill Nelson pled Wednesday for federal assistance investigating the Acreage cancer cluster.
Nelson, an advocate for families in The Acreage since last June, told a Senate committee he would like to see the federal government “take a larger and more proactive role in these complex and highly technical investigations.”
In his remarks to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Nelson mentioned Dunsford, the Acreage resident who prompted an investigation spanning the past year.
Dunsford’s son Garrett was diagnosed in January 2008 with a benign brain tumor. During the months leading up to his diagnosis, Dunsford said Garrett, then 5 years old, did not show significant symptoms until experiencing an injury while roughhousing with his older brother Gavin, then 7, right before Christmas in 2007.
“We noticed a big difference on Christmas Day,” Dunsford said, adding she and her husband realized Garrett seemed unable to move his left arm while attempting to open his Christmas presents.
A member of Christ Fellowship, Dunsford said she did not know of any other cancer patients in The Acreage until two pastors, Todd Mullins and Don Bray, came to pray over Garrett before his surgery.
Julie Mullins, Todd’s wife, said another family from the church would be at Miami Children’s Hospital during Garrett’s surgery.
While in the waiting room at Miami Children’s Hospital, Dunsford and her husband Gregory met the DeCarlo family.
“We really automatically, between the church and between our kids, had an instant bond,” Dunsford said. “It was an instant mini support group.”
Dunsford said following the surgery, which took almost eight hours, her family met Garrett in the recovery room.
“At that point, he had really bad atrophy, but he was holding up his left hand,” Dunsford said. “You go in there and you see your kid in the recovery room and you’re just crying.”
Dunsford said Garrett pulled through very well.
“It was such a blessing,” Dunsford said. “We were only there five days.”
Now Garrett is a happy, healthy 7 year old, whom Dunsford calls a “little outdoorsman.”
It wasn’t long until Dunsford began to find other children throughout The Acreage dealing with brain tumors.
First it was a fourth-grader at her children’s elementary school. Then, Paulette DeCarlo called and told Dunsford about a high schooler who had flown to Miami Children’s Hospital for emergency surgery.
Dunsford began to ask her friends and neighbors if they knew anyone with cancer.
Last May, Dunsford spoke to Garrett’s neurologist, who suggested she request an epidemiology study from the Florida Department of Health.
In June, Dunsford sent out forms to area news organizations and requested they pass along the information to their readers and viewers. Soon, the story was nationwide.
At that time, Dunsford said she never expected the investigation to grow to its current size. Forms began to flow in from residents of The Acreage diagnosed with cancer.
Dunsford acknowledged there may be other factors. Many of the residents diagnosed with cancer moved from Broward County to The Acreage.
Dunsford’s family moved from Pembroke Pines in July 2002.
“I had two healthy kids born on city water,” Dunsford said.
For one month from July 27 to August 15, 2002, Dunsford’s family rented a home near the corner of Seminole Pratt-Whitney Road and 64th Place North.
Dunsford was seven months pregnant with Garrett at the time, and experienced severe nose bleeds and vomiting.
“Looking back, I attributed those to the stress of building a new house, not thinking maybe it was something at the house that made me ill,” Dunsford said.
On March 16, the Dunsford family moved to Tennessee, a change long anticipated but pushed forward after the discovery of the cancer cluster.
Until the move, Dunsford limited her children’s exposure to the soil in her yard and the water from her well.
“Until we rule out soil, there’s no playing with it,” Dunsford said. “During the summers before this happened, [the children] would swim in the pool and set up the Slip ‘N Slide and get all muddy. It makes me a little bit upset that I don’t know what they actually were playing in. I can’t do anything about the past but I certainly can start anew.”
“My husband is an insurance agent so he had no problem getting a job up there,” Dunsford said. “But we had been trying to move up there for the past six years.”
The unspoken victims in The Acreage now seem to be the animals, Dunsford said.
Her dog Harley, a Weimaraner, is healthy.
“I know there are a lot of sick pets out here,” Dunsford said.
Next week, the Beacon will cover the issue of sick animals in The Acreage. Look for the article on March 29.