My family moved to Waycross, Ga when I was 6 years old. Waycross, Ware County is in the southeastern tip of Georgia, about an hour away from Florida. Not long after my mom began teaching in the Ware County school system, she started hearing stories of young children and teenagers dying from rare cancers. It became personal for her when two friends of hers, one a music teacher and the other a fifth-grade teacher, each lost their teenage daughters within a year of one another.
The music teacher’s daughter was a fifteen-year old cheerleader and gymnast. She woke up one morning and could not feel or move her legs. She never walked again. She used a wheelchair for the next 6 months and died before her sixteenth birthday from a rare brain cancer.
Now, some twenty years later, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is investigating an outbreak of rare cancer cases, mostly in children, in the Waycross area.
After four cases of rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS) were diagnosed in the summer of 2015 in Ware County, Georgia State Representative Jason Spencer asked the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) to investigate the cancer cases. Spencer was quoted as saying, “If you look at the incident rate of rhabdomyosarcoma, it is 4.3 cases per one million in the United States; in Southeast Georgia, we have four cases alone.”
In December 2015, CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) accepted a petition to evaluate whether levels of toxicity in certain hazardous materials were of health concern in Waycross. There are currently two sites being investigated: the CSX Rail Yard and the former Atlanta Gas Light Manufactured Gas Plant.
Another site, the Seven Out facility, which was formerly an industrial wastewater treatment plant and more recently a Superfund site, will not be part of the investigation. While in operation, the facility failed to properly treat or dispose of the hazardous waste it took in, which included toxic chemicals at levels found to increase health risks. However, the EPA and DPH have made followup reports stating that people “probably” weren’t exposed to the chemicals from the facility in ways that would harm them. The CDC has confirmed that the site was comprehensively cleaned up in 2008 and underwent a thorough inspection by the Environmental Protection Agency.
CSX Rail Yard
The CSX Railroad’s Rice Yard in Waycross has been in operation since 1897. The facility services large rail and train equipment, which generates large quantities of solid waste. This waste includes halogenated and non-halogenated spent solvents, waste paint, and spent paint strippers. The waste also includes corrosive substances generated from degreasing, painting, and parts cleaning operations. There is also sludge generated from the treatment of wastewater, which contains also contains solvents and hazardous compounds.
The Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) completed an initial evaluation of the potential health impacts associated with exposure to VOCs and metals in surface water, sediment, and soil near the facility. ATSDR is now in the process of reviewing DPH’s report before it is released to the public for comment. The CSX Corporation is conducting an ongoing remedial investigation and providing cleanup at the facility.
Atlanta Gas Light
The Former Atlanta Gas Light MGP Plant manufactured gas in Waycross from 1916 to 1953. The plant primarily turned coal into gas to heat and light homes. This process creates toxic coal tar, which contains arsenic and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, both known to be cancer causing. The company used to dump this hazardous tar into a canal that ran through downtown Waycross, including a city park.
The site was finally listed on the Georgia Hazardous Site Inventory in 1994, more than 40 years after the plant shut down, and after groundwater, soil, and sediment coal tar contamination was found on- and off-site. At that time 94,000 tons of contaminated soil and sediment were removed from a two-mile stretch of the Waycross drainage canal, and 30,000 tons of contaminated soil were removed from the site. This cleanup process was completed in 2001 and groundwater remediation to treat the polluted water continues today under the supervision of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division. However, despite previous cleanup efforts, ATSDR has agreed to look into this site for possible health effects related to the contamination.
There have been articles and news stories about the Waycross case nation-wide, including a write up in USA Today. As a result, this case can bring national attention to other communities with former and functioning industrial sites that could potentially be hazardous to human health. It is estimated that state health departments receive between 1000 and 2000 reports of illness clusters, mostly cancer clusters, each year. Because there is no national system for keeping track of these reports, however, many go ignored.
A study from Emory University, found that over a 20-year period, there were only 567 cluster investigations in the U.S., and only 72 of those were confirmed to be a cluster. Further, in only one of those cases was the cause identified with certainty.
The study also found that there were many problems with past and present cancer cluster investigations and the main issue was the reactive nature of the studies. The studies often worked backwards with collected data toward a hypothesis, instead of following the scientific method of developing a hypothesis first and then gathering data to either confirm or deny it.
The authors suggest that there needs to be a shift in the way that cancer clusters are investigated. There should be more focus on testable hypotheses based on well-defined measurable environmental exposures, specific disease outcomes, and methods for improving past and present historical estimates of exposures. A broader definition of “environment” should be applied as well, which includes biological, socioeconomic, and lifestyle related factors.
Obviously getting the attention of the right people can be a long and frustrating process but it could save lives. If you suspect that environmental contamination could be making you or your community sick, speak up!
While I wish this was not the reason that Waycross made national headlines, I am very proud of my hometown for speaking up and not backing down. In the future, I hope that Waycross can serve as an example for other communities with similar plights.