The curse of Fruithurst: TRUTH behind cancer outbreak in tiny Alabama town as rising cases spark concerns
Fruithurst, which is home to a little over 400 people, has significantly higher rates of 16 different types of the disease than the national average
FRUITHURST, ALABAMA: A cluster of cancer cases in Fruithurst, a tiny Alabama town, is being probed by scientists while it is feared residents may have been drinking toxic water. Rates of 16 different forms of the disease are markedly higher than the national average in the town. Fruithurst is home to a little more than 400 people.
The issue was first noticed after several children and teens in the local school system were diagnosed with blood and bone cancers. Several locals, including the principal of the town's elementary school, raised concerns over the situation. In fact, the principal reached out to experts from various universities to investigate the matter, and 500 households in the school district were surveyed by a team of researchers from the University of Kentucky, the University of Alabama, and Auburn University, according to the Daily Mail.
Almost 50 percent of homes that were sampled between 2017 to 2021 reported at least one cancer diagnosis in the family. Some of the types of cancer were up to 10 times more common than in the rest of the country. It is believed that a now-shuttered rubber-making plant may be the chief culprit. The ProBlend plant sits about a mile south of the elementary school, where concentrations of toxic compounds including lead have been found. Over two dozen sites around the area have been analyzed by the research team for heavy metals and radioactive material.
It was found that the town's water wells and soil had higher than acceptable levels of chromium, zinc, poisonous lead, toxic pesticides, radioactive gas radon, and other heavy metals. In two of the seven wells surveyed, the team additionally found unacceptably high rates of bis (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), a carcinogen.
Local Fruithurst Elementary School principal Christy Hiett tried to find the cause after five children were diagnosed with various forms of cancer between 2014 and 2017. A group she created, Cleburne Cancer Concerns, depended on GoFundMe contributions and grant money to pay for the well water and soil testing.
"When children started being diagnosed with leukemia, people in the community looked to me for answers," Hiett said. "I became passionate about this issue because it was impacting children, and children are my passion. This tugged at my heart greatly." Hiett brought together a team of scientists from the University of Kentucky, Auburn University, and the University of Alabama, who began studying samples of soil and water in the town from 2017 to 2021. Their findings were eventually published in the journal Environmental Justice.
The team interviewed the town's households that were affected by the higher-than-normal prevalence of cancer, taking into consideration smoking, in vitro ingestion of well water and patient medical history in their sample analysis. Dr Loka Ashwood at the University of Kentucky’s Department of Sociology said, "Communities are gatekeepers of the most important knowledge to take on cancer clusters," adding, "They can and should be incorporated into research."
The prevalence of melanoma and lung cancer in the town, 6.7 times and 9.2 times the national average respectively, was especially alarming compared to the national rate. The presence of heavy metals, volatile compounds, and carcinogens was found by a group of sociologists and geoscientists in many of the town’s wells. Many people, unfortunately, relied upon these for water. Some of the contaminants found at elevated levels in the welss' water included carcinogenic bis (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), lead, the pesticides naphthalene and caprolactam, radon, and zinc.
"We identified a relationship between pesticide exposure and the drinking of well water as statistically significant in a model of environmental exposures," Ashwood said. "Our rapid response water and soil samples also uncovered contaminants."
Soil samples were collected in 2017 near dumping sites, the ProBlend rubber manufacturing facility, a nearby railroad, and the home of a leukemia patient. Fruithurst residents have come together to start remedying the condition. Reverse-osmosis water filtration systems were provided to houses that could not connect to the less-polluted municipal water system. Reportedly, researchers will still continue to collect soil and water samples to study the quality of the town's groundwater, as well as its link to illegal dumping sites and the rubber factory.