As child cancer rates explode in Indiana town, moms fight for EPA to take action

Moms fight for action as town deals with surge in child cancer cases

FRANKLIN, IN (CNN) - One Indiana county is seeing an alarming number in the rate of childhood cancers.

Many in Johnson County, a suburban area south of Indianapolis that was once an industrial center, believe it’s linked to toxic chemicals dumped by the factories that used to be the economic engine of the region.

Parents are taking up the issue with the Environmental Protection Agency, but it's an uphill battle in an area that firmly supports President Donald Trump, orchestrator of the agency’s hands-off agenda.

Kari Rhinehart is one such parent. Her 13-year-old daughter Emma developed a rare and aggressive brain cancer in 2014.

"She said, 'Mommy, something's not right.' I said, 'I know. They're trying to fix it,’” Rhinehart said she told her daughter.

Emma died the next day, less than four months after her diagnosis.

At the same hospital that same year, Stacie Davidson's 10-year old stepson Zane was diagnosed with leukemia.

Three years later, he's in remission.

"You can start to see the lineup of the kids getting chemo, and you knew three of them at least from Johnson County every time you were in the hospital,” Davidson said.

Kari Rhinehart and Stacie Davidson founded the group "If It Was Your Child" after the rise in cancer cases.
Kari Rhinehart and Stacie Davidson founded the group "If It Was Your Child" after the rise in cancer cases. (Source: CNN)

The Trump administration's environmental rollback may be complicating efforts to get answers for these parents, and do what they feel necessary to protect their children.

Last June, Erin Tilly got the news that her 12-year-old son had leukemia.

"Garrett is 12 years old and was diagnosed with B-cell A-L-L (acute lymphoblastic leukemia). There were just some warning signs I noticed, so we took him to the pediatrician,” Tilly said. “And she did some blood work, and then called us and let us know that it was leukemia."

Driven by loss and love, Davidson and Rhinehart created the group "If It Was Your Child.”

They have since logged 58 pediatric cancer cases across Johnson County from 2008 to 2018. There were 24 of them in the town of Franklin, with a population of roughly 25,000, alone.

The rise in cancer cases has been most acute in Franklin.
The rise in cancer cases has been most acute in Franklin. (Source: CNN)

With the help of a local reporter, their gut feelings led them to a non-descript old industrial site on the northern end of town where the carcinogen TCE, or trichloroethylene, had been dumped directly into city sewers for decades.

The EPA studied the contaminated site in the 1980s, and a system to remove TCE was finally installed in the 90s.

Decades later, revisiting the site in a city now more interested in economic development was not necessarily encouraged by the community.

"We've been called fear mongers by agencies. Overly emotional. Paranoid moms,” Davidson said.

Rhinehart said they were even accused of harming the community’s image.

"The whole like, if you're critical, then, you know, ‘you don't like Franklin,’ or ‘you're bashing Franklin,’ to me is the equivalent of saying, ‘If I criticized Donald Trump, I'm anti-American.’ And to me, those two - that does not go hand in hand,” she said. “In fact, I feel I'm more American."

The mothers wanted more testing.

When government agencies didn't step up, the environmental non-profit Edison Wetlands Association did.

It hired local environmental consultant John Mundell.

"We found impacts in the air, the ambient air, that matched some of the indoor air chemicals we found in the homes,” he said.

The results changed everything.

"It went from, 'We knew it' to, ‘Are you kidding me? Are you actually kidding me?’” Davidson said.

They prompted the EPA to retest the site last year, revealing an underground plume of TCE under homes and neighborhoods - and possibly expanding.

An underground plume of TCE was found across Franklin.
An underground plume of TCE was found across Franklin. (Source: CNN)

The government put TCE on a list of cancer-causing chemicals in 2005, and former President Barack Obama planned to restrict its use.

The Trump administration has moved to delay that, and many other environmental rules deemed too onerous on business and industry.

“I think when you're relaxing environmental laws, like is happening currently, the tendency is to not be aggressive in assessing sites,” Mundell said. “So sites like this across the country will probably continue to be a kind of put on the back burner."

The cancers in Franklin have not been directly linked to TCE.

But their consistent gut feeling drives Davidson and Rhinehart to seek further testing, and a remedy to make their town TCE free.

In a statement the EPA said it was continuing to investigate the situation in the town.

"We take the situation in the city of Franklin seriously, and have worked expeditiously to investigate, develop a plan, implement the plan and communicate our findings to the mayor and the citizens of Franklin,” the agency said. “EPA is committed to continuing this effort as long as it takes to ensure all contamination is addressed."

Nationwide there are possible hundreds or even thousands of contaminated sites similar to the one in Franklin.

And Indiana's Department of Health counted even more instances of childhood cancers in the county than the moms did.

The EPA it plans to investigate why that underground plume went undetected for so long.

But that's on hold while the government is shut down.

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