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Feds: Wurtsmith veterans could get cancer, other health problems from tainted base water

Air Force Civil Engineer Center conducts drinking water sampling at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base, Michigan. (Breanne Humphreys, U.S. Air Force photo/Released)

Veterans of the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda from the 1970s, and their families who lived with them on the base, face increased risks of leukemia and other harmful effects from prolonged exposures to toxic volatile organic compounds that were in the now-shuttered base’s water supply at the time, a federal health agency has found.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this week released new conclusions about the impact of Wurtsmith veterans’ exposures to unsafe levels of the degreasing solvent trichloroethylene (TCE) and the fuel byproduct benzene in the base’s water supply in the 1970s.

In 2001, ATSDR’s look at Wurtsmith concluded that past exposures to groundwater may have posed an increased risk of developing adverse health effects, but that it was “unknown whether the (volatile organic compounds’) concentrations persisted at high enough levels for long enough durations to actually pose a public health hazard.”

But in a new report Tuesday, ATSDR considered exposures to the TCE and benzene in groundwater with more recent scientific knowledge on pathways into the human body not just from drinking water, but skin contact and inhalation during showers or bathing.

The agency made presumptions about how long different groups of people may have been exposed to the tainted water supply, using conservative estimates and other governmental data: veterans for five years; off-base but nearby children from birth to age 21, and nearby adults for 33 years, and on-base employees for 25 years.

Based on the exposure levels and estimated durations, ATSDR now concludes that some children and adults who used TCE-contaminated water for drinking, showering and bathing, or for drinking only, on the base and in surrounding areas, may be at risk for:

Heart malformations, including increased risk of fetal heart malformations for pregnant women. Immune system effects. Cancer.

From benzene exposures from the same groundwater contamination beneath the base, there exists an increased risk of acute myeloid leukemia, a type of bone marrow cancer, the report found.

An Air Force spokesman did not immediately respond to a Free Press message seeking comment Thursday.

ATSDR’s reevaluation of its 2001 findings came after Wurtsmith veterans and concerned citizens asked the agency “to draw new health-based conclusions that reflect the latest science,” the agency’s report states.

A Wurtsmith veteran hopes it helps

For Wurtsmith veterans who have long contended their health problems were likely tied to their toxic exposures on the base, the new findings provide some validation.

“I do think it’s great that the ATSDR did this,” said Roger Arvo, a Beaverton resident who was a U.S. Air Force sergeant on the Wurtsmith base from 1974 to 1977.

Arvo’s health problems since his service at the base include breast tumors, which are relatively unusual in men; kidney surgeries; severe headaches, a degenerative brain condition and a recent diagnosis of cancer of the spine. Arvo’s wife, who lived on the base with him, has had breast cancer and thyroid problems. The couple’s son, with whom Arvo’s wife was pregnant while living at Wurtsmith, was born with significant hearing loss.

ATSDR’s new conclusions need to trigger a “presumptive service connection,” Arvo said — a Veterans Administration determination that certain disabilities were caused by military service, for which veterans can be awarded disability compensation. Arvo said the VA has rejected his medical problems as being service-related “four or five times.”

“If you think about it rationally, (the U.S. Department of Defense) doesn’t want to do a study,” he said. “If you run a study now (of Wurtsmith veterans), you’ll prove there is a relationship. Well, guess what? Now you have a liability. So you just don’t do the study.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Flint Democrat, said in a statement the new ATSDR report “confirmed what many veterans serving at Wurtsmith feared — that during their service they were exposed to dangerous chemicals in their drinking water.”

“It’s the Air Force’s responsibility to make sure those exposed to these harmful chemicals have access to the health care they need. Since the Air Force has not acted, I have introduced the Care for Veterans Act to provide health benefits to veterans who were exposed to VOC chemicals at Wurtsmith. I will continue to work with my colleagues in Congress to protect service members from VOC chemical contamination at military bases.”

Contamination found in the ’70s

The more than 5,000-acre former Wurtsmith base began operations as an airfield for military aircraft in 1923. It operated throughout World War II and became a permanent installation in 1951, designated by the Air Force as a fighter-interceptor training base for the U.S. Air Defense Command. The base permanently closed in June 1993, as part of a major U.S. military realignment following the conclusion of the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

In 1962, an underground storage tank was installed at the base to store waste TCE, the degreasing solvent. The tank was removed in 1977 after base personnel discovered it was leaking. A TCE groundwater plume was discovered beneath the base and emanating toward nearby Van Etten Lake. The plume affected the base’s water well.

TCE levels were found at a high of 46,800 parts per billion at one on-base monitoring well in the late 1970s. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level for TCE in drinking water, above which long-term exposure could be expected to harm health, is 5 parts per billion.

Remedial investigations also discovered benzene, a fuels-related compound, in the base and surrounding area’s groundwater, presumed to have leaked from a petroleum, oil and lubricant bulk storage area on the base. Benzene levels found in groundwater ranged from 197 to 1,000 parts per billion, far exceeding the EPA maximum contaminant level standard of 5 parts per billion in drinking water.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the Air Force have worked on the cleanup of various contaminants in the area ever since those late-’70s findings. The base and surrounding area have been switched to a city of Oscoda drinking water supply that comes from nearby Lake Huron and does not include the contaminants at unsafe levels.

Denise Bryan, health officer with District Health Department No. 2, which includes Oscoda County, applauded the new ATSDR conclusions. Bryan was among those instrumental in bringing awareness about another water contaminant emanating from the Wurtsmith base, nonstick “forever chemicals” called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.

“When you work with veterans, they and their families have made the ultimate sacrifices for our country. They deserve answers,” she said.

“Now we have the technology, and we have the expertise” to understand more about the health impacts of long-ago contaminant exposures. “Now we just have to step up and do the right thing.”

Information-sharing not enough, vet says

The ATSDR report recommends:

Ongoing activities by EGLE to ensure the community around Wurtsmith “is provided safe drinking water.” Continued monitoring of residential wells by EGLE in areas that are known to be, or could be, affected by Wurtsmith contamination. Continued investigation to define the nature and extent of contamination around Wurtsmith.

ATSDR officials added that the agency will coordinate with other partners “to notify concerned citizens and veterans about the findings in this report.” The agency also said it will update its exposure assessments should additional information become available, and will support public meetings to discuss the report’s findings.

All of that falls short of the concrete help veterans of Wurtsmith and other contaminated military bases need in getting their health problems addressed, Arvo said.

“Most vets have a saying, ‘They’ll deny and deny until you die,'” he said. “I don’t think any of us vets will still be here when they finally do something.”

Wurtsmith veterans, or their family members, who have questions about potential exposures to TCE and benzene in base drinking water in the 1970s can call District Health Department No. 2 at 800-504-2650.


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