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Why are cancer cases increasing in these 2 small Alabama towns?


Updated February 28, 2019 11:36 AM EST


PENSACOLA, Fla. (CIRCA via WEAR) — Some homeowners are concerned after recent tests by the Navy shows water contamination near Saufley Field.

As WEAR reported, the Navy recently began testing water wells near the airfield for chemicals, including one previously used in a firefighting foam that has been linked to birth defects and cancer.

The Navy has gotten results back from some of its testing on the west side of Saufley Field. Out of 20 lab samples, eight came back with levels over the Environmental Protection Agency health standards.

Michael Matthews is one of the eight homeowners with a contaminated well. He said the Navy has warned him to stop using his well indefinitely as the water is possibly unsafe to drink.

“It's a very shocking thing to hear,” Matthews said.

He said he has lived at his home for most of his life and has always used the well. His main concern is time.

“That's the big question," Matthews said. "How long did they put it off before they brought it to our attention, because we've been living here a long time and that used to be a busy area over there."

Matthews said many of his relatives are sick, and he knows of several people on his block who have had cancer. He has no evidence that it’s connected, but is worried all the same. He said he thought of selling his home, but fears the recent testing will only lower his property value.

Now, he’s considering legal action.

The Navy is also testing areas on the eastern side of Saufley Field and NAS Pensacola. Those test results are pending. The Navy is holding a public meeting April 9 at St. Anne Catholic Church to discuss the issue.


CLEBURNE COUNTY, Ala. (CIRCA via WBMA) — Megan Alred only has pictures and memories of her son, Will. He died from leukemia in August 2017. He was just 12 years old.

“It’s worse than anything that I’ve ever been through. Watching him suffer was really hard,” said Alred.

For years, Megan and her husband and children drank water from a well as they lived in a mobile home in the small town of Fruithurst before moving. Many other people here rely on well water, too.

Megan Alred's son, Will, died of leukemia in August 2017. He was 12.

Thirty-eight reported cases of leukemia and lymphoma

In Fruithurst, and in a small neighboring community called Muscadine, Auburn University researchers uncovered at least 38 reported cases of leukemia and lymphoma — and they’re still counting. Four of those cancer diagnoses range from an infant to a 17-year-old.

Researchers say most people diagnosed with cancer here have been on well water. Preliminary tests show many of the wells have contaminated water.

Fruithurst Elementary School principal Christy Hiett is the community activist that heads up a group called Cleburne Cancer Concerns.

“Just to know that those contaminates are in the groundwater, and what they do to your body, makes it very serious,” Hiett said.

What’s in the well water?

Circa partner WBMA checked with the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency doesn’t regulate private wells. Well owners are responsible for the safety of their own water.

About 43 million people in the United States drink from water wells. More than 20 percent of the water wells in 48 states in which samples were obtained had contaminants deemed not safe to drink, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Auburn researchers found an industrial chemical, called Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, in a few wells at levels that exceed EPA limits for municipal water systems. The federal government says Bis 2 may increase the risk of cancer.

They also found naturally occurring radon in some well water at levels that exceed proposed EPA standards for municipal water. The EPA says radon in drinking water may increase the risk of getting cancer, especially lung cancer.

Loka Ashwood is an environmental and rural sociologist at Auburn. She’s part of the research team. She says it’s too early to know if contaminates in the well water can be tied to the cancer cases.

Auburn University researcher Loka Ashwood said it’s too early to know if contaminates in the well water can be tied to the cancer cases. But those contaminants are a big concern.

But those contaminants are a big concern.

“If it’s not safe for urban folks to drink, should we consider this safe for rural people to drink?” Ashwood said.

About 100 families have been given special filters, or been hooked up to municipal water, thanks to grant funding. The residents of about 350 other homes are on their own.

Alred tries to cope with the loss of her son 18 months after his death.

“There are days that we want to cry and scream and ask why?” she said.

Ashwood grew up in a rural area. She says she wouldn’t drink the well water in Fruithurst or Muscadine without a special filter.

What happens next?

Up next comes more testing of the wells and more surveys to see if there are more people with cancer.

In the meantime, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management is working with the EPA to do an additional assessment in the area this spring.


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