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Cancer concerns, environmental testing in Johnson County prompts more action

FRANKLIN, Ind. — Parents raising concerns over the number of child cancer cases in Johnson County are now getting attention from local, state and federal officials following the release of environmental testing results.

The results showed high levels of TCE, PCE and radon in some homes near two sites in Franklin raising concerns about environmental contamination, and are causing worry for some families about their own health.

“Buying our first house was kind of exciting and now it’s kind of, I don’t know, it’s a little upsetting,” Nicole Wilkinson, a mother of two toddlers, said.

She said her family put in an offer last week on a home in Franklin, but after hearing about the test results, is reconsidering their move.

“I couldn’t imagine losing a child or even watching my child go through something like that and just the fact that that’s a possibility kind of deters us from staying here,” Wilkinson said.

The results were emotional for those touched by cancer.

“It was very emotional and of course it came on Em's birthday, so that's when everything was public, so that was hard to say the least,” Kari Rhinehart said.

Rhinehart helped start the group “If It Was Your Child” after her 13-year old daughter, Emma Grace Findley, died of a rare form of brain cancer, and Stacie Davidson, after her stepson, Zane, successfully battled Leukemia.

The group tracks the number of cancer cases in the area. They said since 2008, there have been 50 pediatric cancer cases in Johnson County, 23 of which are in Franklin.

They believe there is a pediatric cancer cluster. State health officials have disagreed.

The Indiana State Department of Health previously wrote:

"ISDH thoroughly investigates all suspected cancer cluster concerns reported by the public, and all investigations are done in collaboration with the relevant local health department. ISDH did investigate concerns about pediatric cancers in Johnson County and found no evidence of a cancer cluster. As part of that investigation, we identified a total of 123 cases of cancer in people under age 20 between 2001 and 2015 in Johnson County. It's important to note that this number represents all cancer types and was within the number of cases that would typically be expected for that time frame."

“If It Was Your Child” partnered with an environmental non-profit, Edison Wetlands Association, to try to get to the bottom of why kids are getting sick.

EWA coordinated vapor intrusion testing for 14 homes near the two sites, the old Amphenol site and the Webb Wellfield.

The Amphenol site is an EPA Resource Conservation and Recovery Act site and the Webb Wellfield is an EPA’s non-priority list superfund site.

The testing was conducted by Indiana based Mundell & Associates, Inc.

According to the results, higher levels of radon were found in six homes. Higher levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) were found in two homes and the ambient air. TCE is a known carcinogen. It’s known for use removing grease from metal parts and making other chemicals. Higher levels of tetrachloroethylene (PCE) were also found in one of those homes and the ambient air. PCE is likely to be carcinogenic, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. PCE is known for use in dry cleaning and metal degreasing. More sampling is needed to help determine the source.

EWA said the results raised concerns for them about whether there is an issue with the ambient air and wants the EPA to conduct further testing. An online petition asking for the same now has more than 30,000 signatures.

“EPA on the call with us on Tuesday they expressed that they would like to work cooperatively with the Edison Wetlands Association along with the local community groups to address these ongoing environmental issues in Johnson County and Franklin,” Shannon Lisa, the programs director with EWA, said.

ISDH said it had not yet received the full report, so can’t comment on the findings. It said it is working with state and federal partners to get more information.

A spokesperson for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management wrote, “IDEM cannot make any determinations from the information that was released by the Edison Wetlands Association. We have requested, and look forward to receiving, the full report so that our staff can fully evaluate its findings."

The City of Franklin’s mayor was expected to meet with representatives from IDEM and ISDH Thursday.

“The report from IDEM and ISDH will be vital in determining what can and will be done to protect our citizens,” Mayor Steve Barnett wrote in a media release earlier this week.

Barnett also said he’s asked Senator Todd Young and Representative Trey Hollingsworth to write a joint letter to the EPA requesting they further the scope of testing in Franklin.

“Senator Young is monitoring this troubling situation and we have been in contact with federal, state, and local officials, as well as the concerned families. A member of our staff is attending the meeting today with IDEM, the Indiana State Department of Health, and the Franklin Mayor to learn more,” a spokesperson for Sen. Todd Young said.

Congressman Trey Hollingsworth is aware of the situation.

Senator Joe Donnelly is asking the Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar to meet with Johnson County families and implement Trevor’s Law.

“I am writing to request greater clarity regarding HHS’s plans for the implementation of Trevor’s Law. As such, I would like to know every action taken to date and any planned future actions to review and implement Sec. 21 of the Frank R. Lautenberg Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act (P.L. 114-82). Further, during my briefing, your staff told me that HHS was unable to carry out this section of law. I am requesting any information HHS used to make this determination and any previous statements HHS has made to Congress or the public about its inability to move forward with the law,” Sen. Donnelly wrote in the letter to Secretary Azar.

Trevor’s Law was enacted in 2016 to address coordination between local, state and federal agencies in investigating potential cancer clusters. It requires HHS make sure the appropriate resources are available when receiving requests from agencies and develop criteria for designating cancer clusters.

“During my meeting with your staff, they stated that HHS had provided technical assistance to the State of Indiana as they conducted their investigation into the situation in Johnson County and that they had reviewed the findings of the State Board of Health. I would like to know what technical assistance was provided and I request that you share any review of the findings of the State Board of Health with the public,” Sen. Donnelly wrote.

On its website, ISDH states:

"ISDH’s current guidelines for responding to inquiries related to suspected cancer clusters align with the 2013 guidelines from the CDC and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists. These guidelines have not changed since the passage of Trevor’s Law. The ISDH will continue to monitor for new guidance or changes in resources provided by federal partners."

Franklin Community Schools also said it is aware of the results.

“Needham and Webb Elementary are near the areas of concern. I want to reassure you that our school board, faculty and staff want to make sure our buildings are ready and safe for the start of our school year,” Superintendent Dr. David Clendening wrote in a letter to parents.

The district said the two campuses will receive “special attention.” It said they’ve retained the services of a company specializing in environmental investigations, and is in contact with IDEM and the city of Franklin.

In the meantime, families are waiting for answers and action.

“I think that she wouldn't want us to stop at this point and Emma loved kids absolutely loved children and she wouldn't want any other kid to go through this. It’s already too much. This community has already lost too much, paid too much of a price,” Rhinehart said. “Emma is the reason for everything for me.”