By Shelby Mullis
State health officials told community members and local families of cancer victims gathered at Franklin Community High School Monday evening that the local water supply isn’t causing children to develop cancer.
“The ISDH (Indiana State Department of Health) can confirm there is no pediatric cancer cluster in Johnson County,” Deputy State Health Commissioner Dr. Jennifer Walthall told those who attended.
ISDH and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) addressed the investigation involving concern of a potential connection between the county’s childhood cancer rate and water quality from the Webb well field. The investigation opened on Nov. 17, 2015.
A cancer cluster is defined as a “greater-than-expected number of cases that occurs within a group of people in a geographic area over a period of time,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Walthall said the childhood cancer cases in Johnson County do not meet the definition of a cancer cluster. Because they have determined no cluster, the ISDH has closed its investigation.
Local families expressed distrust and concern with the conclusion.
One parent asked why officials are not focusing an investigation on Franklin alone, rather than Johnson County as a whole but didn’t get a direct answer.
“When you look at Johnson County based on the cancer registry for Indiana, the rate of cancers here for children is the same as for the rest of the state,” Walthall said. “If we see an excess of a specific type of cancer over the rate we would expect in a concentrated area, that is when we start to do investigations. Those types of cancers that are rare, even the smaller number of such that occur in a specific area, could prompt an investigation, also.”
The National Cancer Institute showed Johnson County’s cancer incidence rate (21.9 percent) for children under 20 to be higher than the state of Indiana (17.6) and the national (17.4) averages.
Walthall said these numbers represent the period from 2008 to 2012. She said the differences between the averages determined by the ISDH and the National Cancer Institute is that the Indiana registry needs to go back to 1999 “in order to look at the full scope of data.”
She added that when the cancer registry data from 1999 to 2013 is complete and confirmed, “the rates are the same for Johnson County as they are for the state.”
Walthall said there is no correlation between drinking water and the 111 pediatric cancer cases identified in Johnson County.
Many audience members questioned the health leader’s conclusion.
“With the rate of Johnson County being at 21.9, it could actually be higher than that?” asked Patty Meade, a mother of a cancer survivor. “At what point are you going to add the new numbers in? If you take a step back and in two years add the 2014 and 2015 numbers and the rate is much higher than 21.9, are you going to open another investigation?”
In response, Walthall said it is her responsibility to “absolutely do so.”
“Cancer investigations are done on an ongoing basis,” Walthall said. “Whenever there is a flag that there is an increased rate over the baseline, that triggers an investigation.”
Another audience member, Christy Johnson, questioned the reasons for shutting down the Webb well and other local wells.
“Overtime, we have phased out the Webb well because it was no longer needed with additional new resources,” said Christina Gosnell, Indiana American Water Superintendent of Water Quality and Environmental Compliance.
In response, IDEM Media Relations Officer Amy Smith said the drinking water of Johnson County is safe to consume, but IDEM will continue checking it.
Following extensive examinations of soil and groundwater in the county, Smith confirmed a source of contamination was identified.
Reid Manufacturing and a former tomato canning plant in Franklin were linked to the chemicals discovered in the soil and groundwater samples near the Webb well field.
“The responsible party has done additional investigations into the naturing extent,” Smith said. “They have put together a plan and are in the process of finalizing it so they can move forward with actual cleanup activities.”
Smith said the particular chemicals were not classified as carcinogens.
“As a regulatory agency, we have to make sure drinking water provided by all of the public water systems in Indiana meet federal and state drinking water standards,” Smith said. “The assurance that we have for that is the data that is provided on all the samples that are taken. We are confident that the regulations we have in place ensure the drinking water is safe. All of the data show the water is safe to drink and it was safe to drink at that time, as well.”
Mary Hollingsworth, IEDM drinking water branch chief, said IEDM oversees more than 5,000 water systems in the state of Indiana to ensure quality. She also said no drinking water has violated drinking water standards.
Gosnell said it is the duty of their company to deliver safe drinking water to their 1.5 million customers. She added that since purchasing the company in 1993, IAW has “faced no violations” because “water quality is taken very seriously.”
For more information, community members are encouraged to contact the Johnson County Health Department at 317-346-4365.
Shelby Mullis is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students.