COLUMN: Focus on disaster prevention over relief


In Franklin, Indiana, many children are developing rare, life-threatening cancers, which can be traced back to a carcinogenic plume released from an old industrial site.  Tribune News Service

In Franklin, Indiana, many children are developing rare, life-threatening cancers, which can be traced back to a carcinogenic plume released from an old industrial site. 

According to data from the National Cancer Institute, the rate of pediatric cancer in Johnson County is 21.7 cases per 100,000 children, which is in the 80th percentile among counties nationwide.

In the shadow of the Flint water crisis, the trouble in Franklin reveals environmental reform and regulation crosses party lines. 

Franklin sits in the center of Johnson County, which voted overwhelmingly for President Trump in the 2016 election. Nonetheless, this crisis has pitted county residents against the Trump administration’s reductions in health and environmental regulations. 

"When it comes to public health, we can go against party lines.” stated Franklin's Republican mayor, Steve Barnett.

I sense that a willingness to “go against party lines” is only possible when a crisis like this shows up on your front door. 

But we must push for regulation before the disaster happens, not after. For children with rare cancers in Franklin or lead poisoning victims in Flint, Michigan, and in East Chicago, Indiana, it is obvious that prevention would have been preferable to treatment.

The crisis in Franklin is not breaking news. A link between trichloroethylene, or TCE, and high pediatric cancer rates has been known for years. A parent’s group in Franklin, If It Was Your Child, has advocated the issue since 2015. Although state regulators were warned about TCE migrating to residential areas in Franklin, neither the Indiana Department of Environmental Management or the Environmental Protective Agency acted to stop it. 

This inaction reveals negligence on all sides. Local, state and federal agencies failed to take action until the summer of 2018, when toxic vapors were detected in Franklin homes. After that three-year gap, we are now left scrambling to clean up the mess, trying to make up for lost time.

A recent letter sent to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General called for a federal investigation into the cause of this spread of TCE. An accompanying article in the New York Times has brought this story into the national spotlight. 

The increasing attention and investigation in Franklin should continue, but instead of helping after the fact, we need to invest in prevention. 

After the Flint water crisis, some called for governments to publish water tests to the public, using technology to encourage transparency and data sharing. One can imagine that, if the same standard were applied to soil testing in East Chicago or air testing in Franklin, these hazards could have been stopped well before they escalated into disaster. 

Many lives could have been different, or even saved, from such policies. This is not a matter of partisanship or whether government should be small or large. Rather, in a very real sense, these regulations are about life or death. Preventative policy and an informed public are critical steps in stopping environmental health disasters before they occur.

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