Cancer mystery continues in Cleburne County, Ala., following EPA testing


EPA contractors take water samples in Fruithurst, Ala., in October 2019. Photo-ABC 33-40

By Brian Pia, I-Team Investigator / ABC 3340

Last fall, EPA contractors took water and soil samples in Fruithurst and Muscadine . They’re two small Cleburne County communities rocked by cancer.

They sampled eight former drinking water wells at homes Auburn University researchers tested two years ago, including the homes where people had been diagnosed with leukemia or lymphoma.

The EPA also sampled near a rubber factory that’s now closed.

According to the EPA, “No contaminants were detected above action levels in any of the samples collected.”

Melissa Griffith lives in Fruithurst and has stage 1 leukemia. We video-conferenced with her. She’s frustrated by the EPA’s findings.

“I think we already knew the contaminations were not a danger for short-term exposure. But we didn’t have short-term exposure. We had very extended long-term exposure,” Griffith said.

Thirty-eight cases of leukemia and lymphoma in Fruithurst and Muscadine

Griffith drank water from a well for nearly 25 years. She still believes the water caused her cancer. She’s one of 38 people, including some children, diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma that Auburn researchers, and the Cleburne Cancer Concerns community group, uncovered in Fruithurst and Muscadine.

Twelve people were diagnosed in the past six years. Three died. All the cancer victims drank well water.

What Auburn researchers uncovered

Two years ago, Auburn researchers found contaminates in wells here, including an industrial chemical called Bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, at levels that exceeded federal limits for municipal water systems. The EPA says Bis 2 is a probable human carcinogen. But It wasn’t detected when the EPA sampled here last fall.

We interviewed Alabama Department of Environmental Management Director Lance LeFleur about two months before the EPA tested the wells in Fruithurst in Muscadine.

“The people up there are convinced. They are convinced that their drinking water is causing cancer. That is sad if that’s not the case,” LeFleur said.

What’s causing the cancer?

The EPA told us in a statement it, “Doesn’t know what the environmental conditions of the area were in the past, or whether those may have contributed to the childhood cases of leukemia that have been diagnosed.”

The EPA also says, “No further investigative actions are planned.”

“But then to follow up with a form letter and no other sources of help, relief, hope or anything? That’s disappointment at its greatest level,” Griffith said.

The Alabama Department of Public Health says the leukemia and lymphoma cases don’t fit the definition of a cancer cluster, but they say they’ll continue to monitor the situation.

ADEM called the EPA report “thorough.”

Auburn researchers say they’ll continue to investigate.

Meantime, more and more residents are switching to municipal water or special filters in the area.