Former DeKalb school workers concerned bad smells linked to their cancers, brain tumors

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DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — Channel 2 Action News “Gets Real” about neighbors who say people are getting sick in their predominately African American community in South DeKalb County.

Many of those diagnosed with environmental cancers worked at Narvie J. Harris Elementary School along Flakes Mill Road near the Snapfinger Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant.

Neighbors have taken it on themselves to test the air and track what chemicals they are breathing.

“Right now, I’m in, battling stage three breast cancer,” said Vivian Wilburn. She is a retired teacher, and this is her second bout with breast cancer.

“I’ve gone through four rounds of chemo,” said Wilburn.

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Because of her weakened immune system from the chemo, Channel 2 Investigative Reporter Justin Gray wore a mask and stayed socially distanced during our interview.

For 17 years, she taught kindergarten and first grade at Narvie J. Harris Elementary School. She remembers the bad smell at the school.

“It smelled like sewage,” said Wilburn.

“It was a terrible smell. And it just followed us into the school. It was in the school,” said Iris Bell, who also taught at Narvie J. Harris for 17 years.

Bell received a shocking diagnosis in 2014. Her neurosurgeon asked if she grew up near a chemical plant.

“You have massive brain tumor that has taken over almost the entire right side of your head,” Bell remembered her neurosurgeon telling her.

Doctors also linked Wilburn’s breast cancer to chemicals. “I was told it was triple negative, which was due to toxins,” said Wilburn.

Now both women wonder about that smell. They spent years using air fresheners and sprays to try to cover up.

“It could have been that’s all I can say,” said Bell.


They’re not alone.

“…about at least 10 people that has passed away with cancer,” said Marguerite Creamer, the school’s former secretary.

She also got sick undergoing both brain and heart surgeries. She said no one ever figured out what was causing the smells.

“They smell like chemicals… you just know it’s something you’re not supposed to be smelling,” said Clarence Williams who lives in a nearby subdivision and started looking for answers.

A major sewage line for industrial waste runs through the area.

“If you open this up, whatever’s in the air, it will pick it up,” said Williams showing us the EPA approved equipment to test air quality outdoors and even inside homes in the area.

He also collected reports from the DeKalb County Watershed’s Industrial Pretreatment Program or IPP which tracks the millions of gallons of chemicals companies send down the line.

“We started figuring out that what we’re finding on the air quality test is the same stuff that’s going through the lines,” said Williams.

It includes dangerous cancer-causing chemicals like benzene, toluene and nickel. “This stuff is bad,” said Williams.

Emory’s HERCULES Center is helping neighbors analyze the testing.

Scientists at HERCULES study environmental health and say while most results do not show levels that violate EPA rules, there are concerns about sustained exposure over time.

“You’d think with longer term exposure, more consistent exposure, you would have a higher chance of having an adverse health outcome,” said Dana Barr, Ph.D. with the HERCULES Center.

DeKalb County has a history of problems with its sewer lines.

In early 2016, the county began work to fix the system for violating state and federal water quality laws under a federal consent decree.

“You’ve got all these toxic chemicals going down the line. You’ve got toxic soup down there,” said Williams.

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Channel 2 filed an open records request for several years of IPP reports from 2013 to 2016. Some reports were missing, and some were incomplete.

Some showed high levels of toxic chemicals, like a 2015 report with a toluene level of 67, more than 3,200% higher than the EPA limit of two.

It’s difficult to prove a cause and effect between environmental toxins and cancer cases. But the community would like to see DeKalb County and the EPA do more.

“I really think it should be more testing done to protect the people that’s there,” said Bell.

The Georgia Department of Environmental Protection tells us it sent a letter to Dekalb County in 2020 for being in “reportable noncompliance” for monitoring of industrial releases.

Dekalb County Schools tells us it performed testing at Narvie Harris after complaints, telling us in a statement:

“Community members presented the DeKalb County School District with environmental concerns related to the school site. Due diligence was done by the school district when it was made aware of the citizens’ concerns. Immediate environment testing was conducted. The results of the testing were shared with and cleared by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2020.”

DeKalb County government officials sent us the following statement.

“DeKalb County’s Industrial Pretreatment Program is a state-authorized program that governs and monitors commercial and industrial discharge into the DeKalb sewers. DeKalb County’s Industrial Pretreatment Program, which was revamped in 2016, requires commercial and industrial users to pretreat their discharge to remove or reduce harmful elements prior to that discharge reaching the county sewer system. Neither the DeKalb sewer system nor the wastewater treatment plant were designed to convey or process industrial waste or toxic chemicals that can deteriorate sewer pipe and are hazardous to the biological process that is used to treat wastewater. Monitoring compliance with the Industrial Pretreatment Program is a top priority for the Department of Watershed Management and the county.”


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