Girl's Cancer Leads Mom to 'Overwhelming' Discovery of More Than 50 Sick Kids Near Closed Nuclear Lab

"Pediatric cancer is rare — you're not supposed to have neighbors whose children also have it," says Melissa Bumstead, who "knew I had to do something"  

Calif. Girl's Cancer Leads Mom to 'Overwhelming' Discovery: More Than 50 Kids Near Closed Nuclear Lab Were Also Sick
Melissa Bumstead and her daughter Grace. Photo: Yuri Hasegawa/@yurihasegawaphoto

Melissa Bumstead made a terrifying discovery in 2014 as her four-year-old daughter Grace lay in a hospital bed battling a rare form of leukemia. While keeping vigil at the Los Angeles medical center where Grace was receiving treatment, Bumstead began meeting the parents of more than 50 children with equally rare cancers and was horrified to learn that they all lived near one another.

"I just kept meeting people who lived down the corner or around the block or behind the high school," she tells PEOPLE during an interview in this week's issue. "And that's when the panic started to set in."

Even more alarming, Bumstead soon learned that all their homes were located in a circle around a 2,850-acre former top-secret rocket engine and nuclear energy test site—built in 1947—that had long been contaminated with radioactive waste and toxic chemicals.

And for the past seven years the 41-year-old mother of two, who lives 3.7 miles west of the facility, has helped lead the fight to finally get the Santa Susana Field Laboratory property — run chiefly by the Department of Energy, Boeing and NASA before its closure in 2006 — cleaned up.

Calif. Girl's Cancer Leads Mom to 'Overwhelming' Discovery: More Than 50 Kids Near Closed Nuclear Lab Were Also Sick
Grace Bumstead. Yuri Hasegawa/@yurihasegawaphoto

"This is a hugely contaminated site that contains a who's-who of chemicals toxic to human health," says Dr. Robert Dodge, a Ventura, Calif., family doctor and board member of the group Physicians for Social Responsibility. "They can cause cancers, leukemias, along with developmental, genetic, neurologic and immune system disorders."

While caring for her daughter, whose acute lymphoblastic leukemia has been in remission since a bone marrow transplant five years ago, Bumstead and her group — Parents Against the Santa Susana Field Lab — has pressured California state officials to enforce a 2007 cleanup agreement, scheduled to have been completed in 2017, that they say has remained stalled. That agreement, among other things, called for the removal of contaminated topsoil that residents allege gets blown from the site into surrounding communities by high winds or washed offsite during rains.

alfa nuclear plant explosion
Testing rocket engines at the Alpha I test stand, at the Santa Susana Field Lab. Photo by Rocketdyne. June, 1990. Courtesy Melissa Bumstead

Since 2015 Bumstead has immersed herself in scientific studies on the site, testifying at countless public meetings, launching a Facebook page (now with nearly 5,000 members) and creating a petition on the issue (that has attracted over 750,000 signatures).

"It was frightening," says Bumstead, who is featured in the 2021 documentary In The Dark of the Valley, "to read studies about how adults who lived within two miles from the lab had a 60 percent higher cancer rate than those living more than five miles away or that over 1,500 former workers at the site received federal compensation after being diagnosed with cancer."

Even more frightening for Bumstead was learning that the lab was the location of one of the nation's largest — and least known — nuclear accidents that occurred 1959 when one of the facility's ten sodium nuclear reactors experienced a partial meltdown, releasing enormous amounts of radiation into the surrounding environment.

Calif. Girl's Cancer Leads Mom to 'Overwhelming' Discovery: More Than 50 Kids Near Closed Nuclear Lab Were Also Sick
Melissa Bumstead, 41, her daughter Grace, 12, with husband Chad Bumstead, 47, and son Luke Bumstead at home in West Hills, CA on March 23, 2022. Yuri Hasegawa/@yurihasegawaphoto

"It's exhausting, depressing and often overwhelming," says Bumstead of her crusade to get the contaminated site cleaned up. "But the cancer was all around us. And I realized that kids are just going to keep getting sick. So I need to do something to make the situation better."

For more of this story, pick up a copy of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

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