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Flap continues over Lejeune health assessment

Aug. 16, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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RALEIGH, N.C. — A bipartisan group of U.S. senators and congressmen is urging the Centers for Disease Control to complete a new, comprehensive report on the health effects of toxic tap water at the Camp Lejeune Marine base.

The lawmakers also want the agency to investigate whether people were exposed to airborne toxins inside buildings after contaminated wells at the North Carolina base were closed in 1985. And they asked the agency to look into the feasibility of a “cancer incidence study” for Lejeune.

The four senators and two representatives were reacting to news that the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, a division of the CDC, intends to issue a less comprehensive report than the one it released in 1997. The original public health assessment was withdrawn four years ago because of incomplete data.

They said they also are concerned the agency will ignore “the potential for harmful exposures via inhalation” in the decade and a half after contaminated wells at the coastal North Carolina base were taken off line.

The Aug. 9 letter to CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden was signed by U.S. Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan of North Carolina; Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson of Florida; and U.S. Reps. Dennis Ross of Florida and John Dingell of Michigan.

“Public Health Assessments are essential and critical to ensuring full and complete information about exposures to hazardous substances is available to the public,” the six legislators wrote.

“This is especially necessary in the instance of Camp Lejeune, where hundreds of thousands of unwitting military service members and their families were exposed to extremely high levels of known human carcinogens over a span of more than three decades.”

Burr, Rubio and Ross are Republicans; Dingell, Nelson and Hagan are Democrats.

The lawmakers included the request for a cancer study in a follow-up letter Friday.

Bernadette Burden, a spokeswoman for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said in an email Friday that staff “are currently reviewing data that we received from the Dept. of Defense to determine if there is sufficient information to assess exposures from vapor intrusion. To date the public health assessment process has not been reopened.”

In a website notification dated January 2011, the agency said it had withdrawn the 1997 report because “additional information has emerged” and affected communities “were exposed to contaminated water for a longer period than we used in the 1997 evaluation.”

The notification also said the original report had neglected to include certain information that it has since deemed necessary.

“The full extent of the exposure is still being determined. Thus, the 1997 Assessment may be misleading because the information upon which it was based was incomplete,” the agency wrote.

Retired drill instructor Jerry Ensminger, who believes the toxic water caused the leukemia that killed his 9-year-old daughter, puts it a different way.

The 1997 health assessment contained “so many omissions, so many lies, so many errors and obfuscations that the public has never received a full picture of what they were exposed to and what they might expect from being exposed,” Ensminger said.

He said anything short of a comprehensive reassessment is unacceptable.

“It’s like pulling damn teeth to get them to do their job,” he said of the agency. “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way. Somebody.”

As many as 1 million Marines, dependents and civilian workers are believed to have been exposed to trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene and other toxic chemicals that leeched into ground water from a poorly maintained fuel depot, dumping and an off-base dry cleaner. Last year, President Barack Obama signed a law providing medical care and screening for those exposed between 1957 and 1987. But Ensminger and others fear that cutoff date is too early.

In April 1999, workers in Building 1101 — which housed the Information Management Division, the base communications center and Marine Corps Community Service warehouse — began complaining of a strong petroleum odor. In early December, several workers reported headaches, nausea, and eye and respiratory irritation; two visited the base’s Occupational Health Clinic.

When technicians sampled the air, they reported “breakthrough” — meaning the charcoal inside the collection tubes was “completely saturated with gasoline vapor.”

Several buildings were evacuated and later demolished.

In a March 1982 report, chemist Wallace Eakes described a visit to the base. Among the sites tested was Building 71 — built as a storage and mixing facility for DDT and other dangerous insecticides, but later used as a day care center.

Eakes said the findings were “a shock to all concerned.” He said a preventive medicine officer took air and soil samples in the area “under the guise of a normal health survey,” and that the air samples were then analyzed in Norfolk.

Two months later, technicians from the Naval Regional Medical Center collected samples and submitted them to the Navy Environmental Health Center for analysis.

A May 1988 feasibility study recommended that Lejeune monitor ambient air for buildings located near contamination “hot spots.”

Nine years later, in June 1997, an engineering firm issued a report on leaking underground storage tanks at the Hadnot Point Fuel Farm. The firm noted that several buildings were in the affected area, and that the trenches around them might spread contamination.

When ATSDR released its health assessment two months later, vapor intrusion was not listed as a risk for those working in the Hadnot Point area.

Tina Forrester, acting director of the agency’s Division of Community Health Investigations, told members of the Lejeune community assistance panel last month that the agency was reviewing the vapor intrusion issue, but that it did not yet have enough data to assess exposures.

In the past, the Marine Corps has cited regulations that it only maintain certain records for five years. Ensminger notes that the base was declared a Superfund site in 1989, meaning all records should have been preserved.

“Now, where the hell are the analytical results?” he asked.

To solve the problem of missing or incomplete data on well contamination, the agency performed complex water modeling to estimate toxin levels back to the 1940s. The legislators suggested something similar could be accomplished with the data on vapor intrusion.

“If ATSDR does not have the records of vapor intrusion and air quality sampling from the (Navy), we request you provide us with an alternate scientific process to reconstruct and analyze this particular aspect of potential exposure,” they wrote.

Forrester told the Lejeune panel that the Agency for Toxic Substance intended to issue an “addendum” to the health assessment — called a health consultation — that would include the water modeling and other data not available the first time. She suggested that waiting for another comprehensive public health assessment would take too long.

“I think the problem is that this is uncharted territory,” epidemiologist Richard Clapp, who also is a member of the community assistance panel, said in an email to The Associated Press.

“On its face, it seems that the new information about vapor intrusion, plus the newly modeled benzene exposure estimates would require substantial effort by the staff to do even an update” to the assessment.

The lawmakers indicated that a simple addendum to the agency’s original report would not be sufficient, however.

“We expect you will ensure ATSDR continues to fulfill its Congressional mandate to ‘expand the knowledge base about health effects from exposure to hazardous substances,’” they noted, “and that you will do so by re-issuing a Public Health Assessment” as required by law.

They gave Frieden until Aug. 26 to respond.

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