Environmental testing in area plagued by high childhood cancer rates

Desperate for Answers
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JOHNSON COUNTY (WTHR) — More than a dozen Johnson County homeowners will soon know if toxic chemicals from an old contaminated site are leaching into or near their homes.

A team of out of state environmentalists are in town to help concerned parents find out what could be making their kids sick.

13 Investigates first uncovered the high rate of childhood cancer in Franklin.

Now for the first time homeowners are getting soil and vapor testing.

Digging into the soil could provide some answers for the Phillips family and 22 other families living in Franklin.

On Wednesday, environmentalists were scheduled to conduct soil and vapor intrusion testing at more than a dozen homes.

"We're going to stick a probe in the soil and see if we can detect an volatile organic contaminants which could be indicative of a ground water plume," explained Shannon Lisa, program director at Edison Wetlands Association, the New Jersey not-for-profit sponsoring Wednesday's testing.

Edison Wetlands is known for getting contaminated sites cleaned up in its home state, and now hopes to do the same in Franklin, after hearing about high pediatric cancer rates in the area. The latest National Cancer Institute data shows the cancer incidence rate for children under 20 in Johnson County is at 22.2. That is higher than the state average of 17.3.

In 2015, 13 Investigates first discovered nearly half of the children diagnosed with cancer since 2009 in Johnson County lived or spent significant time in Franklin.

Children in Franklin diagnosed with cancer.

Ronald Phillip's daughter Sydney was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2015.

It was her diagnosis that prompted Stacie Davidson and dozens of other families impacted by childhood cancer to turn to 13 Investigates. Davidson and Kari Rhinehart later founded a group called "If It Was Your Child" to help draw attention to the plight of children in Johnson County.

"This is the first time that we're actually having testing. So after almost three years of the investigation. It's kind of like a full circle moment," Davidson told 13 Investigates as she watched the team conduct testing outside of Ronald Phillips' home.

Phillips said he can't believe how many children have been diagnosed with cancer in his small community.

"It's not just one episode, it's 12, 15, 20. It needs to be looked at," he said.

According to Davidson’s numbers, 22 children out of 48 children in Johnson County diagnosed with cancer live in Franklin.

The Edison Wetlands Association believes the types of toxic chemicals discovered leaching from contaminated sites miles away could create vapor intrusion.

"Nobody should have to feel unsafe in their homes from industry's toxic assaults. So we're looking to develop a baseline of data that was never done before," said Lisa.

Old records from the Indiana American Water Company claimed toxins flowed from the old Franklin Power Products and Amphenol site into the Webb Wellfield. Amphenol denies it was the source of the contamination.

According to Edison Wetlands, the site was even evaluated as a possible SuperFund site in the '80s.

"The extent of the groundwater plume really hasn't been determined," Lisa explained. It's why the team of environmentalists believes it’s time to re-evaluate the site with up to date criteria.

"They had a leaky plating room floor, they had a leaking sewer line that discharged these toxic chemicals directly into the ground water and into the soil," she added.

The Indiana American Water company told 13 Investigates it shut down 3-contaminated wells at the wellfield, with the last shut down in 2012 after detecting high levels of DCE contamination. Indiana American Water maintains its drinking water was safe and always met the appropriate standards.

Kari Rhinehart and her 13-year-old daughter Emma Grace lived just a mile away from the Wellfield.

Emma Grace died in 2014 from Glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer.

"No one ever told me what was around me," Rhinehart said. "So I just hope this helps to move that process forward."

The Indiana Department of Health conducted a short investigation into a possible cancer cluster but ruled the number of children diagnosed with cancer in Franklin and Johnson County was "statistically insignificant."

Edison Wetlands says the investigation didn't go far enough.

"It's not just a numbers game, human health affects don't just occur in a vacuum, you have to look at both the environment that an adult or child lives in," said Lisa. It's why Edison Wetlands has made the city of Franklin an ongoing project.

The organization has also started a petition to try to get the EPA to oversee and pay for testing for more families in Franklin.