Testing the Water: Looking for answers behind growing number of cancer cases in Fruithurst

FRUITHURST, Ala. (WIAT) — In November, we told you about the small community of Fruithurst in Celburne County, a town with around 700 people in and around the city limits where seven people have been diagnosed with cancer within fifteen months of each other.

For months, people in town have been asking what could be causing so many people here to get sick.

“The question has become, whose child will be next?” said Christy Hiett, Fruithurst School Principal.

Related – Community concerned after 4 boys diagnosed with cancer over last year

Megan Alred’s son, Will, has leukemia and is in the process of chemotherapy. Will was checked into Children’s Hospital in Birmingham last fall but has since been well enough to return home. On February 9th, he returned to school, welcomed warmly by friends and classmates with a surprise party. He had celebrated his 12th birthday the day before.

“It was fun. I liked it,” said Will.

His mother, Megan, says it’s been difficult watching her son battle round after round of harsh treatments. Around the beginning of the year, he became very sick, she says, enough to need feeding tubes.

“We actually were kind of scared to go in there at night and check on him,” she said.

It’s this burden of fear that has gripped the town of Fruithurst, not just for those who are sick, but for all the children who live here.

“It’s almost like walking on eggshells when a child is sick for a long period of time and there’s not exact answers for that sickness,” Hiett said. “We’re all scared that this verdict is going to come back that this child has leukemia or that child has some form of cancer.”

We wanted to test the drinking water of Fruithurst, to see if we could find a potential cancer-causing contaminant. We tested for benzene, a chemical that has been linked to cases of leukemia like those of Will Alred.

Our tests of well water and inside the homes of several children with cancer came back negative for any potential contaminants. However, those negative test results do not answer questions for people in Fruithurst.

“So we want more extensive testing of the water, and we’re in the process of getting that done,” Hiett said.

A rural sociologist from Auburn University saw our November report on the children of Fruithurst, and has started working with the town leaders, training people on how to take water samples and helping to organize a campaign for more testing of potential contaminants.

Hiett says she is in the process of completing a grant application for funding that could help in the expensive procedure of water testing. Determining the cause of a cancer cluster can be incredibly difficult, since it necessitates determining an original source for potential contamination, but many people in Fruithurst say, they are not giving up just yet.

“If we know what the culprit is and know that this contaminant is really high in the water and it is strictly tied to this kind of cancer, then hopefully we can fix that problem,” Hiett said. “But to now know is probably the worst thing that could happen.”

The grant process could be completed within a couple of months, and Hiett hopes to have water testing completed soon after.

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