A Child’s Cancer Leads Mom to Demand Answers

BY ON March 4, 2019
Emma’s Rhinehart with her mom, Kari Rhinehart of If It Was Your Child

Emma’s Rhinehart with her mom, Kari

In Johnson County, Indiana, where Kari Rhinehart lives, over fifty children have been diagnosed with rare forms of blood, brain, and bone cancer in the past ten years. Her daughter, Emma Grace Findley, was one of those children. She was 13 years old when she died from Glioblastoma Multiforme, an aggressive brain tumor.

Documentation from the EPA shows that both state and federal environmental regulation entities were aware of contamination concerns over the previous decades – going back to 1984. As early as 1963, the area had been used to manufacture electrical parts by Franklin Power Products.

In 2015, Rhinehart joined with Stacie Davidson to form If It Was Your Child, a “nonprofit parent organization working to investigate the cancer crisis and environmental contamination in Indiana.”

This interview tells of the fight the two women have been leading:

In January of this year, If It Was Your Child, along with the Edison Wetlands Association, wrote to the Acting Inspector General of the EPA about the Indiana Amphenol Corporation site. Included was the statement that there had been a lack of oversight by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA). You noted that the toxicity at this location is “comparable” to Superfund Sites. How did this situation fall through the cracks and what went wrong?

Our letter to the OIG pointed out that there are significant data gaps in documentation. We reviewed 30,000 pages of materials, one of which was a document from the 1980s that scored the Amphenol site high enough for it to be designated a Superfund. That calculation did not include vapor intrusion as statistics do now. Since Amphenol agreed to the cleanup, it was decided to place oversight under the RCRA program. The biggest issue has been that there was never any effort to determine if the contamination moved offsite until last year, following our tests that showed Trichloroethylene (TCE) and Perchloroethylene (PCE) in homes.

The contamination was known for at least eleven years prior to the “pump and treat” installation. Clearly, there was plenty of time for the toxins to migrate off-site.

What went wrong? Good question.

Amphenol agreed to and followed the EPA mandates. I think it was mostly overlooked by the EPA. But what’s more disturbing is the number of state and local officials and agencies who have found evidence the toxins had migrated off-site over the last two decades and yet took no action. I think it’s a classic case of “not our problem,” or that’s EPA…not the local IDEM or the city. No one took accountability and our kids have paid the price.

How did the June 2018 Edison Wetlands Association findings differ from those of the state and local authorities?

The June 2018 tests were funded by EWA, and performed by Mundell & Associates. We coordinated the homeowners and community effort. The results were meant to be a baseline, as no one had ever sampled homes or looked to see if the contamination had an impact off-site. Our tests found these toxins both above and below the maximum contamination limits (MCL). The city, state, EPA and other private organizations have found the same. It’s important to remember the difference between non-detect (ND) and below the maximum contamination limits (MCL). Being below the limit does not equate to “safe” in vapor intrusion as volatile organic compounds can fluctuate drastically day to day, even hour to hour. That is why our next round of testing will be important. We will utilize state-of-the-art technology that will provide real-time readings, as well as traditional testing.

If It Was Your Child is currently organizing an independent environmental investigation, with a residential sampling sign-up. Do you think the results will help to get traction at the state and federal level?

I think private testing has been pivotal to getting federal and state agencies moving in our community. We went to both state and local officials in June of 2017 with a cancer cluster specialist and a chemical engineer/hydrogeologist who had previously worked for the EPA. We showed them documents at that time which were troubling. The experts told officials there were significant areas of concern with the multiple sites near the cluster of childhood cancer cases. No one listened or took any significant action to investigate. Not until our test results came out on July 16, 2018, ironically on what would have been Emma Grace’s 17th birthday, did any agency take any real action to determine if the contamination was off-site.

What can moms do if they are put in the position of protecting their children from environmental harm?

Follow your mom gut. We have been told for years now that we were overreacting. Once our tests results came out, it was clear everyone else had been under-reacting. You can use your deep love and fierce protectiveness for your kids to drive you emotionally, but you can also use science, data, and research to ensure you are moving in the right direction.

There are many times when this has been incredibly hard and I wanted to walk away. My emotional drive, in those times, comes deeply from my love for my children and the inspiration of Emma’s fight and determination.

Photo: Courtesy of Katie Plummer

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TOPICS: Activism, Cancer, Children's Health, EPA, Indiana, Motherhood, Toxics