State health leaders: No cancer cluster in Johnson County

Parents in Johnson County hoped for answers to why so many children have gotten sick.
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State health and environmental leaders responded Monday to a 13 Investigates report on an alarming pediatric cancer rate in Johnson County.

People are worried contamination is making their children sick.

In response to our reports, Indiana American Water held a public forum in Franklin with leaders from the State Department of Health and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

For families who gathered at Franklin Community High School, this fight is personal. It's about what's endangering their children's lives.

Like Matt Davidson's son Zane, who was diagnosed with cancer after living in Franklin for five years.

"It's my boy. It's our boy," Davidson said tearfully.

RELATED: Johnson County parents want answers in childhood cancer cases

Most of the people gathered Monday have lived in the same area and share the same story. They have a child who's dealt or dealing with some form of cancer.

They told 13 investigates they're worried that the pediatric cancer rates in Johnson County are unusually high. They're also concerned the cancers could be connected to contaminated well fields that are under investigation by the state.

Families were hopeful they'd get some answers, or at least a promise to investigate, at the forum.

"You know what I want to hear? I want to hear them say we're gonna keep working," Davidson said.

But Monday night, the state health department said definitively there is no cancer cluster, that their investigation, launched this month, is now over.

They say the cancer rates here are average. Calculations were based on cancer reports from 1999-2013. In Johnson County, that included 111 pediatric cancer cases.

"There is not a pediatric cancer cluster in Johnson County," said the state's Deputy Health Commissioner Dr. Jennifer Walthall. "There is not a known link between drinking water and any of the cancers that have been reported here. We don't know what causes all cancers. We are so very sorry for what you're going through. But a cancer cluster has a scientific definition that's accepted. In the cases of cancer in children here, although completely tragic, do not meet the definition."

State leaders say cancer clusters, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control, have to be a certain type of cancer. Families in Johnson County have children with several different types of cancer.

RELATED: 13 Investigates childhood cancer rates in Johnson County

Some in the crowd questioned health leaders' conclusion and questioned whether the soil and water are safe.

Indiana American Water maintains their water is very safe. They have never had an issue upon inspection. They say that any dangerous chemicals found in ground water were caught and treated during the extensive water treatment process, before reaching families' faucets.

"So before it reaches public consumption is safe to drink," Walthall said.

"We know that it's safe. It's met all drinking water standards since we've owned the system in 1993," explained Indiana American Water representative Joe Loughmiller.

RELATED: City of Franklin asks water company to address citizens' concerns

"All of the data show that the water is safe to drink and it was safe to drink at that time as well," added Amy Smith, media relations with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Still, when asked by the media about specifics - about a contamination source for the well fields and the cleanup plan underway for the company in question, IDEM's Smith didn't have many answers.

"I'm sorry I don't know the exact status. I should have been better prepared," Smith said.

RELATED: 13 Investigates identifies more cancer cases in Johnson County

Health leaders did assure the public they are safe. They say the cancer risk is no higher here in Johnson County. But parents with a sick child aren't satisfied and aren't done seeking answers.

"This investigation has just started. If they had a child with cancer, if they had a family member with cancer, if they had cancer, they would really want to know," said parent Patti Meade.

"As a group, I don't think we're finished," Davidson added. "We're going to keep digging. We're gonna keep turning over rocks and if this isn't the environmental cause, maybe it's something else. This is just the beginning."