Physician fired for health warning dies

Former Nevada state health officer Edward Crippen, who was fired for trying to alert the Fallon public and officials of a health danger in their community, died on Nov. 13.

In 1969, Dr. Crippen heard from a recently retired Churchill County nurse who told him a secret she had learned from local officials and had told no one for fear of losing her job. The water in the region, she told Crippen, had a problem. Crippen checked her facts and discovered the water was dangerously high in arsenic. He notified local officials in Fallon that they needed either to get a new water source or start treating the old one.

Acting Fallon Mayor Merton Domonoske, worried that word of the danger would get out and hurt tourism, made contact with Gov. Paul Laxalt, who convened the Nevada Board of Health to fire Crippen, which it did on Feb. 26, 1969, causing the national publicity of the kind Domonoske had hoped to avoid (“Blinded by Science,” RN&R, March 1, 2007).

Crippen continued a distinguished career, serving as health officer for Gulf Oil and doing health consulting for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the governments of Israel, Togo, Korea, Morocco, Haiti and the Comoros Islands. He was living in retirement in Mancelona, Mich., when he died.

Fallon, meanwhile, wrestled constantly with the arsenic problem for two decades. In 1990 under a different mayor the city signed a consent agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency promising to set aside $1 million over a 10-year period to address the arsenic problem, notify water customers of the problem, and construct a treatment plant if necessary to comply once a final standard was decided upon. By then skin problems among residents in the region that can lead to cancer—warts, lumps and skin discolorations—had been traced to the arsenic. A $17 million water treatment plant opened on April 13, 2004, with the nearby Paiute Shoshone tribe planning its own plant.