I came across this story on First Coast News and it sounded like a John Grisham novel. Scary for the residents of Waycross, Georgia. As a personal injury attorney and blogging for the past four years, I’ve started to wonder what officials put in our water to keep it purified and what consumers really know what they ingest in their bodies. Consequently, I thought it was important to blog what was going on in Waycross. In 2014, a Georgia Water Coalition report stated the childhood cancer rate in Waycross was higher than the state average. Last summer, four children in and around the Waycross community were diagnosed with a rare cancer — all within a two-month period. This month, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry will being looking for answers to residents’ questions. Residents believe the source of the disease is environmental because of the number of industrial companies in the area. No connections have ever been made between the illness and any of the companies present. Federal investigators plan to evaluate sites involving CSX property and Atlanta Gas and Light, but there are no plans to investigate the EPA’s Superfund Seven Out site.
First Coast News interviewed Ellen Walker who has a grandson who is one of several children diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, within a 60-day period. “He’s lost a lot of weight,” said Walker. “…I think it has got to be something to do with the air and the water.”
Rhabdomyosarcoma is so uncommon, there are only 350 new cases a year in the United States. Yet there were three cases reported in the Waycross area over a two-month span.
“In this area, we’re talking about four maybe five cases in a 60-day period,” said Georgia State Rep. Jason Spencer. “There may be other cases.” Spencer district includes Ware County and has expressed community concerns. Spencer reviewed an investigation into Rhabdomyosarcoma cases in New Hampshire and found similarities.
“Look at the facts around the cases in the Ware County region,” he said. “It would most likely fit the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) definition and you would most likely call this a cancer cluster.” He is now asking Georgia Public Health Department to take a second look at cases like Gage’s and declare the area a “cancer cluster.” “It is the first step in determining a case for causation,” said Spencer. “How will they find a cause? That is another challenge.” On March 15, the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry will launch its investigation into a possible source.”The exposure pathway has to be established, that’s what they will do,” said Spencer.
Chris Rustin, director of Georgia’s Public Health’s Environmental Health Section, had the agency analyze all cancers in Ware County. They also reviewed extensive environmental data and information available for the CSX Railyard. But an official with the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) said his agency does not believe any chemical releases at the CSX property are affecting the local community. Contaminants at the CSX site include “chlorinated solvents – paint waste,’’ says Jim Brown, program manager for the hazardous waste corrective action program at the EPD. These include Dichloroethane, Tetrachloroethene and various other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), he says. (The EPA says VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals; some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans, the EPA adds.) CSX is responsible for investigating releases from their solid waste management units and developing a plan to clean them up, Brown says. “They’ve completed the investigation at their site and are currently cleaning up several of the areas at their site that require corrective action.”
The railyard is not the only potential source of industrial contamination in Waycross. Nearby is the former Seven Out facility, which treated industrial wastewater until its owners abandoned it in 2004. In January 2005, the EPA took emergency action to deal with the flow of wastewater into a nearby drainage ditch. The agency removed about 350,000 gallons of wastewater and other liquid wastes. Two years ago, residents expressed concern that exposure to elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), found in a drainage canal that runs through a Waycross park, may have originated from the Seven Out site. Public Health concluded that exposure to the levels of PAHs in Folks Park was unlikely to have adverse health effects.
A third Waycross site was Atlanta Gas Light’s manufactured-gas plant, which closed in 1964. The investigation and cleanup of the site were conducted in the mid-1990s, concluding in 2001. EPD’s Brown says 125,000 tons of contaminated sediment were removed from nearby canals and their banks. The sediment contained volatile organic compounds.
After a public meeting in November 2013, EPD collected and analyzed soil and groundwater samples from residences around the CSX facility. No contamination was detected in those samples above a health-based standard, Brown says. The results of that investigation were presented to the community at a public meeting in May 2014. Since the public hearing, EPD has not conducted any independent testing in the area.
So what is causing all of the rare cancers in Waycross?