Researchers disagree on cancer links in rural Alabama town

Children in one small Alabama town are developing forms of cancer that have worried parents and scientists asking why. Now some wonder whether potentially dangerous chemicals in the well water are to blame.

Fruithurst, Alabama is just five miles on the other side of the Georgia state line. Only a few hundred people live there.

People like Meagan Holbrooks. For years she and her husband Josh raised their two sons in a comfortable country home off a dirt road in Cleburne County. They lived too far away to tap into the municipal water line, so they dug a well and used that water.

Not anymore.

"I should have stock in bottled water because man, without it, I don't know what we'd do," admitted Meagan while standing in her kitchen. "The fear is cancer. So my children and myself... and my husband. It's a big deal."
It sure is. And chances are few others would have cared about Fruithurst if an elementary school principal with no background in science had not decided to ask why an alarming number of children in her community were being diagnosed with cancer.

"Everybody said there has to be something causing this," explained Fruithurst elementary school principal Dr. Christy Hiatt. "Someone needs to do something.

One of the boys, Will Alred, attended Fruithurst Elementary. Leukemia took his life in 2017.

"It's a mystery because originally it was four young males," said Dr. Hiatt. "And then four middle-aged females were diagnosed with leukemia and lymphomia. So there had to be a common thread."

At the principal's urging, Auburn University scientists tested the water in the Fruithurst area. The water provided by the city or the country came back safe. But for residents who get their water from individual wells, the results confirmed their fears.

Some of the wells showed higher than acceptable levels of heavy metals and semi-volatile organic compounds linked to cancer. Dr. Hiett also sent out surveys to the community to ask whether anyone else had been diagnosed with cancer since 1987. The surveys are still coming in. So far, she said they've identified at least 50 cases of leukemia or lymphoma.

Will Alred is the only child who has passed away. We asked his mom whether tests found higher than acceptable levels of contaminants in her well water.

"Oh yes," Megan Aldred confirmed. "Abnormally high. To the point where it didn't get there by accident."

So how did those contaminants get there? There is no confirmed culprit. Most could be naturally occurring, except for Bis (2-ethylhecxyl) phthalate, a semi-volatile organic compound that can be a byproduct of rubber production.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management found "Bis-2" in the soil of a closed rubber plant in Fruithurst, but at acceptable levels. "At this time, the site does not pose a threat to human health and the environment," ADEM announced last year.

A spokesman for the rubber plant denied any role in the well water contamination, insisting they did not dump any chemicals. He also pointed out the state has taken no action. Auburn scientists plan to test groundwater near the site later this year.

But the science is not clear. Experts with the Alabama Department of Public Health tell the FOX 5 I-Team the number of cancer cases in the area is actually in the expected range. In fact, one scientist said he would have no problems drinking the well water. Auburn researchers disagree and urge individual residents to get their well water tested.

Meanwhile, Dr. Hiett helped secure grant money to assist those still drinking well water: $55,000 to get 28 residents hooked up to the municipal water system. Another $25,000 to buy 45 reverse osmosis filters.

Meagan Holbrooks worries the filters only clean the water from their kitchen sink. The rest of their water needs still rely on their well.

"I've just been praying about it and just doing the best that we can do," she confided.

Even with the grant money, nearly 400 families still get their drinking water from wells.

"I drank water when I was pregnant with him," advised Megan Aldred, explaining that her son Will was still drinking well water up until the day he died. "I ask myself what I could have done different. Quite often. And that is why I'll do everything I can to keep it from happening to another family."