Waycross, Georgia is a town of about 15,000 people that sits on top of an enormous spill, or plume, of toxic chemicals. The state ordered the site to be cleaned up in 1985 when they found hazardous chemicals like paint strippers and solvents poured into pits and down the drains.
The owner of the site, railroad company CSX Transportation, has been monitoring the Rice Yard complex since the early 1990s. The complex sits in the center of Waycross and spreads out for 755 acres around it, with nearby streams that could carry pollutants even farther away.
But in recent years, inspectors have seen workers dumping toxic waste by neighborhoods where children were diagnosed with cancer.
Inspectors who tested the waste found high levels of cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE), and methylene chloride, a paint stripper that is believed to cause cancer.
Three children have been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a type of cancer that usually starts in soft tissues or muscles. A fourth child has been diagnosed with a similar type of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma, which starts in bones or soft tissues touching the bones.
The children were diagnosed with these rare types of cancer in 2015, but they live too far apart for health officials to call it a cluster. Two children live in Waycross and drink the city’s water; two live in tiny communities outside town and drink water from private wells.
City officials say the public water supply is clean, but there’s little recent documentation to back up their assertions. Old wells may also allow chemicals spilled at the surface to get into the water supply.
The cancers involved have no known link to environmental exposure, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health. The unusual thing is that these cancers are extremely rare — and it is even more unusual for 4 children to get cancer in a small town within 60 days.
Only about 350 cases of rhabdomyosarcoma and 250 cases of Ewing’s sarcoma are diagnosed in the United States each year.
Many victims file lawsuits when public health departments do not help. The family of one child with cancer is working with an attorney, who sent a toxicologist to do testing around her home. Lawyers say these kinds of cases often take years of work, and even then, it is hard to prove that a child’s cancer was caused by exposure to toxic pollution.