Watch CBS News

Moms Of Kids With Cancer Turn Attention From School Cell Tower To The Water

RIPON (CBS13) — After four kids were diagnosed with cancer at one school, parents convinced the district, and the cell phone company, to remove the cell tower on campus. Now the two moms behind that fight are broadening their focus and asking CBS13 to investigate concerning chemicals that have been found in Ripon's groundwater.

CBS13 dug through decades of water testing data and found a history of chemicals linked to certain cancers in Ripon's groundwater, irrigation and drinking water wells. The city insists the water is safe and the levels of the chemicals in drinking water remain below the legal limit, but an analysis of required public notices from the City of Ripon, revealed missing data, inaccurate information, and years when Ripon skipped required testing for certain chemicals.

Kelly Prime and Monica Ferrulli became unintentional activists after their sons, Kyle and Mason, were diagnosed with cancer about a year apart. The moms were concerned a cell tower at Weston Elementary School in Ripon might have been a contributor, and after two more kids at the school were diagnosed, other parents joined their fight to get the cell tower removed.


"We promised that we'd check off every box that we can check off to make sure that these children don't get sick anymore," said Prime.

They've now begun compiling a list of other people in Ripon with cancer, and as the list grows, they said they've realized the issue is bigger than the school. At last count, the list contained 133 people diagnosed with various cancers since 1990, including 10 children diagnosed since 2015. CBS13 spoke with seven of their parents.

READ ALSO: Parents Blame Elementary School's Cell Tower After 4th Student Diagnosed With Cancer

"There's a problem, there's a serious problem," Prime said, thinking about the list.

Many of the cancers on their list, including kidney, liver, breast, and leukemia, are linked to Trichloroethylene (TCE) and its sister chemicals, Vinyl Chloride and Cis 1,2-DCE.

Nestle used TCE to decaffeinate coffee at its former factory in Ripon until 1970. The chemical was later discovered in the groundwater in the 80's. A Cleanup and Abatement Order requires Nestle to, among other things, track the movement and amount of TCE related chemicals in the groundwater and wells in Ripon.

Their reports indicate the chemicals in groundwater have migrated away from the site of the old Nestle plant and toward homes and schools.

The City of Ripon is required to do its own water testing and notify residents of concerning chemicals found in drinking water wells through an annual "Consumer Confidence Report (CCR)." They're also required to report annual results to the state Water Board.

But CBS13 found Ripon's latest public report, the 2017 CCR, contained errors and missing information. The city included inaccurate Public Health Goal information and completely omitted the fact that TCE was found in a Ripon drinking water well. While the levels of TCE-related chemicals found were below the Maximum Contaminant Level allowed by law, state law still required the city to report the TCE levels found. The well in question, known as MW-3, has a long history of TCE related chemicals.

The city cited human error for failing to report the TCE and corrected the mistake eight months later following media attention of the recent child cancer cases.

"How long have they known that TCE has been in the water but left it off an annual report that's supposed to be given to the public?" Prime asked. "The number one cancer causing of TCE is kidney cancer, that's what my son had," she said fighting back tears.  "Liver cancer is the second, that's what my neighbor died of so why did we not know?"

RELATED: Officials: Soil Not Harmful Near School's Cell Tower, Parents Still Looking For Answers

In a statement the City of Ripon told CBS13:

"In 2016, the City testing showed that no TCE was in the water and therefore it was not included as part of the 2016 Consumer Confidence Report.  In 2017, testing indicated TCE was again present, but unfortunately, the line item showing TCE was not added back to the report.  As we were reviewing the 2017 Consumer Confidence Report with the recent release of the public information bulletin, we realized the mistake and wanted to make sure we correctly showed the TCE concentration and therefore amended the report."

Nestle's independent water report in 2016 did find TCE in the same well that year.

The City declined to provide copies of its past Consumer Confidence Reports, most of the online links no longer work, but Water Board records indicate the City of Ripon did not report any TCE testing at that drinking water well in 2011 or 2013.

Nestle's reported increasing TCE concentrations in the well dating back over a decade. The 2017 annual report says levels "decreased sharply" when the well was temporarily deactivated from 2015 to 2017, but reached their "historical maximum" just months after it was reactivated.

By June of 2018, Ripon's own testing found chemicals at 90% of the legal limit but the well remained in operation for four more months. The city waited another six months to notify the public of the levels found and the deactivated well.

Prime and Ferrulli said they did not know the well had reached 90% of the legal limit or that it was shut down. They wondered just how high the levels got before they shut the well off.

"If it tests 90% that day, it could have tested over 100 the week before," Ferrulli pointed out.

The City would not confirm if it performed any additional testing.

In a public information bulletin following the cell tower concerns, the City of Ripon acknowledged the elevated levels noting, "The well, which has supplied on average 4% of the City's annual drinking water over the last nine years, was turned off in October 2018. The City is currently performing additional testing to evaluate how best to move forward with this well, ensuring we continue to provide safe and reliable drinking water."

Records indicate the well was not in operation for at least two of those nine years, and Ripon declined to clarify what it meant by "4% of the City's annual drinking water."  There are five wells in Ripon, none of the others tested positive for the chemicals, so it is unclear how much any one home got from this well at any time.

Ripon insists, "At no time was water delivered from this well or any other well that did not meet safe drinking water standards."

"I don't know that I believe that," Prime said, noting missing data and errors in the records.

Safety aside, Prime and Ferrulli stress they had the right to know what was in their water and they didn't. If they had known about the TCE results, they say they would not have let their kids drink the water, even knowing it was below the legal limit.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.