13 Investigates identifies more cancer cases in Johnson County

Johnson County toddler loses battle with cancer
Thursday at 11: Getting answers in Johnson County childhood cancer cases

JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. (WTHR) – The number of childhood cancer cases discovered by 13 Investigates has expanded from 20 to 30 cases in Johnson County.

13 Investigates first reported alarming rates in that county, and now there is growing concern about contamination from an old plant and new calls for better monitoring in Indiana.

It wasn't long ago, at just 2 and half years old, Grant Harding was battling for his life. Enduring more than 20-spinal taps, stomach turning medications and more.

"It's so rewarding to watch him jump on a trampoline after all he's been through," said his mother Jill watching him bounce.

Grant Harding with his mother, Jill

Jill and David Harding live in Morgantown in rural Johnson County. Yet their son Grant is part of another growing community.

He's a cancer kid, one of at least 10 diagnosed since 2009 with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL.)

"Kind of shell shocked is really a good word...surreal," said Jill, talking about what's happening in Johnson County and reflecting on Grant's diagnosis.

"He's our first child. Why us? And what's the uniqueness in our environment?" she added.

All of the kids with ALL live within 25 miles of each other, five of them with connections to Franklin, including Grant. Jill Harding was born in Franklin.

"Just seeing how close and how many more kids are affected was pretty heart wrenching," she told 13 Investigates.

13 Investigates has learned more kids are getting sick in Johnson County than the state and national average.

Rare Diagnosis Shared By Children Living Miles Apart

“No child should have to experience cancer”

Even more troubling, Johnson County kids are getting diagnosed with rare cancers too.

Maddie Newton died in March from Pilocytic Astrocytoma brain cancer, the very same cancer her school mate Emma Stumpf now has.

Emma Grace Findley passed in December of Glioblastoma.

Within the span of 4-years, the county has seen at least 3-cases of Ewing's Sarcoma.1

Research shows about 200-cases diagnosed each year.

However, there has been no investigation by the state's top health agency until 13 Investigates showed the agency its numbers.

What does the Indiana State Department of Health have to say to the families?

"No child should have to experience cancer. The fact is, not a lot is known about what causes particularly some of the pediatric cancers," said State Epidemiologist Pam Pontones.

Indiana State Department of Health Seeking Information on Diagnoses in 2014 and 2015

While Pontones says some cancers are genetic, the State Department of Health is seeking information from Johnson County families diagnosed between 2014 and 2015. The agency is looking for possible connections to farming, industry and the water supply.

The problem is there have been no formal studies.

"No evidence that we have seen or that has been verified of an environmental cause, specific environmental cause for these types of cancers related to water," she explained.

Nationwide Water Sources Facing More Scrutiny

Nationwide, several water sources are now under investigation:

  • In St Louis, spikes in brain and thyroid tumors are raising questions about radioactive waste in the soil and creek near a uranium processing site.
  • In Columbus Ohio, a jury ruled a chemical used to make Teflon contaminated the drinking water and caused a woman's kidney cancer.
  • In Flint, Michigan, high levels of lead have been discovered in drinking water there making children sick.

Now the city of Franklin and the Johnson County Health Department are demanding answers from the Indiana American Water Company in Johnson County.

Hurricane Creek in Johnson County

They want to know what chemicals and how much were in its water supply during the time 3-water wells near Hurricane Creek were found with high levels of DCE contamination.

"We are continuously monitoring," said Stacy Hoffman, Engineer at the Indiana American Water Company. Hoffman sat down with 13 Investigates weeks ago to answer questions.

"Anytime there's contamination in an aquifer, it's a concern," he said.

Hoffman says high levels of the chemicals DCE, PCE and TCE are cancer causing. Discovery of increased levels forced the company to shut down two water wells in 2006. A third well remained open until 2012.

Hoffman says the wells provided only a small portion of water to its overall supply.

"We've always maintained water quality in accordance with EPA standards," he added.

Under EPA guidelines, the water coming from your tap must test below a certain level for two types of DCE and it's more toxic cousins PCE and TCE.

The Indiana American Water Company tells 13 Investigates despite elevated levels, it's drinking water was in compliance during the years in question.

But consider this: while the EPA makes allowances, according to the National Drinking Water Regulations the actual public health goal for two of the chemicals is ZERO.

"We certainly do not want to be in any area of contamination," Hoffman said.

More Contamination Discovered Near Webb Well Field

EPA and IDEM regulators are now trying to force the clean up of the contamination of the Webb Well Field in Franklin. It started at the Franklin Power Products and the old Amphenol Corporation site.

In an April 2015 letter obtained by 13 Investigates, IDEM points to even more contamination near the well field, this time the State is investigating concentrations of PCE and TCE in the ground water and soil of Reed Manufacturing. Where it's coming from is still unknown.

Experts Want Better Monitoring in Indiana

Experts tell 13 Investigates Indiana has to do a better job monitoring its aquifers and wells.

"Many years ago, we didn't know that these compounds were dangerous. You have to look up stream eventually and say, 'What's there?', said Jack Wittman, the Geoscientist who warned the Indiana American Water Company of potential contamination flowing toward the Webb Well Field 10-years before it arrived. Wittman says with old chemicals showing up in groundwater across the state, it's time Indiana invest in more monitoring wells.

"The eastern half of Arkansas has 255 monitoring wells. Our state currently has about 50. The whole state," he revealed. "The public voice is the strongest voice. If there is outcry, there will be action," he said.

In Johnson County, the call for action is spurred by the faces of sick children suffering from cancer and asking why?

The Indiana Cancer Registry reports a childhood cancer incidence rate of 20.5. But Johnson County's rate is still higher. (The National Cancer Institute shows Indiana's childhood cancer rate at 17.6.)

Without knowing exact causes of cancer it's difficult to suggest preventative measures. But experts warn pregnant women and children to avoid exposure to insecticides and radiation.

The State Department of Health is still taking information and looking for possible environmental exposures.

1 13 Investigates tracked down more information on Ewing Sarcoma