CDC to conduct health study at contaminated former military base
Federal health officials are conducting a new study to determine whether veterans stationed at a now-closed California military base have been exposed to dangerously high levels of cancer-causing toxins.
The decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes nine months after an Associated Press investigation that found that drinking water in Fort Ord contained toxic chemicals and that hundreds of veterans who lived at a Central California coast base in the 1980s and 1990s later developed rare cases. And wonderful. Chronic blood cancers.
In a letter last Friday to Representative Katie Porter, D-Calif., CDC Director of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Patrick Bracey, wrote that “there is sufficient data and scientific reasoning for the ATSDR to reassess the health risks related to historical exposure to drinking water in Fort Ord.” Porter had commissioned a new study in February, two days after the Associated Press published her story.
The agency did not immediately respond to a request for more details about the new study.
Army veteran Julie Aki, who lived in Fort Ord and was diagnosed in 2016 at age 46 with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, said she was “confident that science will prove that the rising rates of cancer and disease are not a coincidence.”
Akey started a Facebook group for Fort Ord veterans with cancer. The number grew to nearly 1,000.
In 1990, four years before shutdown began as an active military base, Fort Ord was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the most polluted places in the country. That contamination included dozens of chemicals, some of which are now known to cause cancer, that were found in the base’s drinking water and soil.
An Associated Press review of public documents showed that the Army had known that chemicals had been improperly dumped at Fort Ord for decades. Even after the contamination was documented, the military downplayed the risks.
One such chemical was trichlorethylene, or TCE, which was known as the miracle degreaser and was widely used in Fort Ord. The Army found TCE in Fort Ord wells 43 separate times from 1985 to 1994, and 18 of those tests showed that TCE exceeded legal safety limits.
The new health study will update one that was conducted over 25 years ago. The previous ATSDR Public Health study, published in 1996, found that toxins in the soil and in aquifers below Fort Ord were not likely to pose a past, present, or future threat to those who live there.
But that conclusion was based on limited data provided by the military and before medical science understood the relationship between some chemical exposures and cancer, notably TCE. Four years after the ATSDR evaluation, in 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services added TCE to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.
It is unclear how long and at what concentrations TCE may have been in the water prior to 1985, when hundreds of thousands of people lived at the base. And TCE was not the only problem. The Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 40 “chemicals of concern” in soil and groundwater.
The Department of Veterans Affairs told the Associated Press earlier this year that the contamination was “within the tolerable safe range” in areas that provide drinking water.
Veterans who lived in Fort Ord and have since tried to obtain medical care or disability benefits through the VA were denied based on their cancers. Aki et al. hope the new study will find a link between their cancers and their time in Fort Ord, allowing them to access care and benefits.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta grew up next to Fort Ord, underwent basic training at the base and now runs a non-profit institute there. He said the new health study is an important next step for veterans.
“They were willing to serve their country and put their lives on the line, and as a result of their desire to serve, I think we really owe it to them,” he said.
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