An unusual spate of cancer cases around a small town in Alabama has sparked an investigation by a team of geologists, medical experts, and sociologists. Through their dogged work with the local community, the researchers believe they may have found a culprit: environmental contamination of the water and soil.
The issue first came to light when a significant number of children and teenagers in the Fruithurst school system were falling sick with leukemia and osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer.
This caught the attention of many people in the small town, including Christy Hiett, the principal of Fruithurst Elementary who was born and raised in the area. To get to the bottom of this traffic mystery, she reached out to some experts who put together an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Kentucky, the University of Alabama, and Auburn University.
The team surveyed over 500 households in the school district and discovered the prevalence of cancers was significantly higher than the national average. This was especially noticeable in the rates of melanoma skin cancer – 6.7 times the national average – and lung cancer – 9.2 times the national average. Overall, at least 16 cancer types were found to be more prevalent in the town than in the rest of the US, from stomach and cervical to colon and pancreatic.
They then started to interview some of the families who had been impacted by cancer, looking to see whether diet, smoking, or other lifestyle factors were playing a role in the mystery. This highlighted a couple of possible avenues to investigate.
Firstly, many of the affected families had some connection to a local rubber factory. Secondly, members of the local community had also voiced concerns that some kind of environmental exposure might be at play.
Following this lead, the researchers analyzed 26 sites around the area for heavy metals, semivolatile and volatile organic compounds, and the radioactive chemical radon.
Their findings showed that the town’s water wells and soil were loaded with higher than acceptable levels of heavy metals and semivolatile organic compounds, some of which have been linked to cancer. The water systems also contained industrial chemical Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate – another possible cancer-causing agent in humans – at levels that exceeded federal limits.
This led the study to conclude there were “possible associations” between the cancer cases with the water supply and pesticide exposures.
Armed with this knowledge, the local community has established Cleburne Cancer Concerns, an activist group created to put collective pressure on the powers responsible for environmental damage.
"Residents have been able to pursue direct action, such as the installation of reverse osmosis systems to reduce exposure," Loka Ashwood, lead study author and sociologist at the University of Kentucky, said in a statement. "Cleburne Cancer Concerns is also advocating that county commissioners end spraying the herbicide MSMA Target 6 Plus on roadsides."
In the eyes of the researchers, this work is a victory for the local community who showed it's possible to receive justice when equipped with the right knowledge. The team hopes their model of research will inspire other groups that are looking to seek justice for community-identified health issues.
"Working on this project has helped me understand how community-based participatory research actually works in practice and what outcomes are possible when researchers and community members draw on their knowledge and skills for social and environmental change," added KC Vick, a doctoral student at the University of Kentucky's Department of Sociology.
The study was published earlier this year in the journal Environmental Justice.