No one knows for sure what causes type 1 diabetes. It is partly genetic (sufferers have predispositions to autoimmune diseases in general), but the condition itself is also triggered by one or more environmental agents. After Ann Marie Kreft’s son, Gus, age seven, was diagnosed a year and a half ago, she dedicated herself to finding out why, exactly, her son developed the disease—and why, exactly, so many other kids living nearby had it, too. The state does not keep a registry of diabetic children, so Kreft, with the help of other concerned parents, started compiling her own. What she found is that something unsettling is going on in the suburbs of Boston. And though it has taken a while, she is no longer the only one who sees trouble in the data she’s collected.
In the medical community, there’s a general sense that diabetes diagnoses are increasing everywhere, with the Centers for Disease Control estimating that one out of every 4,166 children under the age of 20 can now expect to develop the disease. What’s happening in Massachusetts is alarming, but for a slightly different reason: Children are being diagnosed within weeks or months of one another, some of them living within a close geographic range. According to Kreft’s figures, seven have been diagnosed within a two-mile radius encompassing Weston and Wellesley. There have been five new diagnoses in just 10 months in Concord. Five children have been diagnosed on one 30-house street in Plymouth. A Boston University journalism professor, Elizabeth Mehren, recently e-mailed Kreft about her son, who was diagnosed within six months of another kid from the same Hingham street; a third child on the street had also been diagnosed around that same time, as had one on the street perpendicular. Suburban moms from Walpole to Marshfield, Westford to Belmont, tell Kreft that they are worried about their child, their neighborhood, their town.
Kreft, a 46-year-old housewife, has a lithe frame, straight blond hair, and an Erin Brockovich vigor about her. Her familiarity with diabetes extends beyond her son’s diagnosis: Her father died of complications from the disease when she was 17 years old. His drawn-out death—from kidney failure, in the end—was devastating to watch. Though Kreft herself was spared the disease, she spent her teenage years worrying that her future children would develop it; she’d heard an old wives’ tale that diabetes skips a generation. Once fully into adulthood, however, and certainly by the time she fell in love with Tim Ramsey, a chemist, who would later become her husband, that fear receded, and she fell into her life’s routines. Then one day in September 2007, when Gus was seven, he needed to pee every 10 minutes. He also could not stop eating—devouring a third breakfast and asking for a fourth. She understood immediately that her son had her father’s disease, and the next day, after a blood test, and out of sight of Gus, she bawled at the dining room table. When the doctors at Children’s Hospital later tried to assuage her fears, she wanted to pummel them. She knew too well.
Kreft’s need to understand why Gus had been handed this fate led her first to the Internet. She also started a charity, Treats for the Troops, in which kids donate the Halloween candy they cannot eat to be sent to soldiers in Iraq. Before the charity’s inaugural event, she learned of a neighborhood family whose daughter had recently received a type 1 diagnosis. Two months later, Kreft heard of a boy down the road with the disease. The month after, another boy six houses down. "It just started to get more and more strange," she says. "And then every time we got a new diagnosis, I felt it all over again. That terrible punch in the stomach." She fixated on the unknown environmental trigger. What the hell is out there that is making all these kids sick?
When she heard about Walker Allen, Kreft felt she could use the high-profile case to make the public aware of the growing threat in her neighborhood. She wrote a pleading letter to the Boston Globe, which the paper published on July 17. "Something’s not right here," she wrote. "These many diagnoses, in this tight proximity in this short period, are way out of the norm. We would be grateful if a researcher tried to figure out what’s going on."