by Joanna Metheny
In the past few weeks, most of Ripon’s residents have likely heard at least something about the apparent rise in cases of pediatric cancer surrounding Weston Elementary. With two cases stemming back to 2015 diagnoses, one new one in 2018, and one current student just diagnosed in the past month, the community is in an uproar. A large group of parents believe the root cause of the high concentration of cancers is related to Weston’s on-campus Sprint cell tower, and are actively working on getting it deactivated or removed entirely. However, certain details in some of these cases, as well as a seemingly increasing number of cases all over town, have led others to look for answers elsewhere.
Many long term residents will remember the decades-long running of a Nestle plant on Industrial Avenue here in town. They manufactured both caffeinated and decaffeinated instant coffee and tea from 1948 until the plant’s closure in 1994. Longer term residents might also recall the water pollution scandal, as well as cluster of possibly related cancer cases surrounding the plant’s operations, although both they and newer residents might not be aware of the details surrounding the situation.
Nestle used several solvents in order to decaffeinate coffee beans. From 1957 to 1970, the company used trichlorethylene, or TCE for extraction, and from 1970 to 1986 (at which point they stopped decaffeinating beans), they used methylene chloride or MC. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, TCE can cause everything from dizziness and nausea, to headaches and death, and is a known human carcinogen. The ATSDR website states TCE “breaks down very slowly in soil and water and is removed mostly through evaporation to air” and “is expected to remain in groundwater for a long time since it is not able to evaporate”. In addition to a multitude of other serious health issues, TCE can in particular cause kidney and liver cancers.
Methylene chloride is considered a likely carcinogen, and is known to cause a range of health issues including liver dysfunction, respiratory and cardiovascular problems, headaches, irritability, and a decrease in the blood’s ability to carry oxygen. According to the ATSDR website “chronic exposure may be more serious for children because of their potential longer latency period”. It has also been found that MC can cross into the placenta, and has been detected in breastmilk.
Nestle stored the used solvents in above ground storage tanks. In 1986, sixteen years after the discontinuation of its use, it was discovered that TCE had leached into two of Nestle’s on-site wells. For some reason, a filtration system was installed in only one of the wells, and later both wells, as well as a third were all destroyed, and a 4th was created to replace the factory’s water supply. At some point after this, an additional two wells were installed. It is speculated that the chemicals were found in the water supply either due to an accidental leak of the storage tank, or due to a leaks in the city’s sewer system, which channeled Nestle’s wastewater. The Cleanup and Abatement Order of 2006, states that the TCE plume “’appears’ to be defined west, north, and east of the facility”, and then “it is uncertain how far the plume has migrated west” of the wells that were being monitored for contamination.
In 2002, Nestle gave Ripon a settlement of $1 million to be applied to filters and development of new wells. Since that time, Nestle, the City of Ripon, and the state have all partnered together to conduct ongoing testing for TCE (but the water is not regularly tested for MC). According to Ripon’s Director of Public Works, Ted Johnston, the Nestle cleanup effort is an ongoing process. Each of the city’s wells are tested every three years for TCE and other volatile chemicals, and if one of the readings is higher than the MCL, or Maximum Containment Level, then the well is monitored annually until the reading falls back below the MCL. Johnston shared that all of the wells in Ripon are interconnected and sourced from the same aquifers. Most recently, Well #3, which is located in the 2nd St. and Linda Ave. area has been found to have contaminated water, and is currently undergoing treatment. Prior contamination spots have included well #4, and an area near the water treatment plant. Each time contamination in a well is discovered, measures are taken to clear the water of VOCs, but due to the nature of underground aquifers, and TCE’s inability to dissipate unless exposed to air, the contamination continues to move. This factor, in addition to the fact that our municipal water sources are all interconnected raises some concerns about residents’ exposure.
A reading that falls below the Maximum Containment Level does not indicate there is zero trace of a chemical. As recently as 2008, in addition to TCE, both tetrachloroethylene, or PCE (a dry cleaning solvent), and dibromochloropropane, or DBCP (a pesticide used in agriculture), were detected in our water supply. If we know that the TCE cloud (and other chemicals) persists and migrates in our water supply to this day, residents had unmeasurable exposure to it through the water system prior to its discovery in 1986, and it is a known carcinogen, is it not reasonable to at least consider it as a cause of the current issues our residents are facing?
About the author: For nearly a decade, Joanna Metheny has been a freelance writer specialized in the coverage of local topics and community interest stories. A Central Valley transplant and Bay Area native, Joanna permanently relocated to Ripon and hasn’t looked back once. She loves the city’s proud agricultural history and small town feel. Joanna enjoys spending her time in the community, tending her garden, and discovering local secrets along Ripon’s backroads.