Published On: Fri, Sep 4th, 2015

Multiple rare childhood cancer cases strike in Ware, Brantley counties

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cancerWAYCROSS – Lexi Crawford, 14, began complaining of back and abdominal pain and fatigue earlier this year.

“She was too tired to do anything,’’ says her mother, Cristy Rice. The pain got so bad that Lexi was taken several times to a Waycross emergency room. At first, she was diagnosed with urinary tract and kidney infections.

Finally, when Lexi wound up back at the ER in late May, a doctor ordered a CT scan. He found spots on her spine, Rice says.

Lexi was taken to Jacksonville, where she was diagnosed June 1 with cancer. It had originated in a muscle and spread to her spine, lungs and pelvis. Lexi “was eat up’’ with cancer, Rice says. The teenager is now undergoing chemotherapy.

Hers is one of four childhood sarcoma cases in Ware County and neighboring Brantley County that relatives and community members say were diagnosed within two months of one another this summer.

The state Department of Public Health says it’s investigating the childhood cancers, and looking into community concerns about an industrial site at the CSX Railyard in Waycross for a possible link.

A prominent state lawmaker has pushed for the state probe, noting the general rarity of the cancers involved in these cases.

Meanwhile, the new cancer cases have community members wondering whether there is a connection to where they live. Old fears about industrial contamination in the Waycross area have resurfaced.

Three of the children, including Lexi, have rhabdomyosarcoma, and the fourth child has Ewing sarcoma, according to family and community members.

Both types of cancer are extremely rare.  There are only 350 new cases of rhabdomyosarcoma each year in this country, according to the American Cancer Society. The annual incidence of Ewing sarcoma is one case per every 1 million Americans, though the figure is somewhat higher for children, according to the National Cancer Institute.

State Rep. Jason Spencer, a Woodbine Republican whose district includes Ware County, has heard the community concerns. The four childhood cancers are not common cancers. “They’re rare cancers,’’ Spencer, a physician assistant, said in a recent interview.

“Three [rhabdomyosarcomas] pop up at the same time in the same area – that’s a red flag,’’ Spencer says. “ I think there’s something there.”

Spencer, who as a lawmaker takes a special interest in health issues, says he’s not trying to be an alarmist.

“Epidemiology is not an exact science,’’ he says. “I don’t think people should be pointing fingers until test results’’ are finalized.

Chris Rustin, director of Public Health’s Environmental Health Section, told Spencer in a letter that the agency will analyze all cancers in Ware County.

“In addition, we are reviewing extensive environmental data and information available for the CSX Railyard,’’ Rustin said in his letter.

But an official with the state Environmental Protection Division (EPD) says his agency does not believe any chemical releases at the CSX property are affecting the local community.

Contaminants at the CSX site include “chlorinated solvents – paint waste,’’ says Jim Brown, program manager for the hazardous waste corrective action program at the EPD. These include Dichloroethane, Tetrachloroethene and various other volatile organic compounds (VOCs), he says.

The EPA says VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation; headaches, loss of coordination, nausea; and damage to the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Some organics can cause cancer in animals. Some are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans, the EPA adds.

CSX is responsible for investigating releases from their solid waste management units and developing a plan to clean them up, Brown says.

“They’ve completed the investigation at their site and are currently cleaning up several of the areas at their site that require corrective action.”

Kristin Seay, a spokeswoman for CSX, said in an email sent to GHN that CSX is committed to being a good steward of the environment.

“We are working with the Georgia Department of Health and the Georgia Department of Environmental Protection in the environmental investigation and remediation of impacts related to historic operations at Rice Yard.“


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