May 6, 2009 in Nation/World

Agency reconsiders safety of tap water at base

Camp LeJeune’s water assessed for cancer risk
Rita Beamish Associated Press

Nearly 12 years ago, a federal report told Marines and their families that adults faced little or no increased cancer risk from drinking and bathing in chemical-tainted water at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune. That report – long challenged by skeptical veterans – no longer stands.

Federal health officials said recently they were withdrawing their 1997 assessment of health effects from the water contamination because of omissions and scientific inaccuracy.

“We can no longer stand behind the accuracy of the information in that document, specifically in the drinking water public health evaluation,” William Cibulas, director of health assessment for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said at a meeting in Atlanta. “We know too much now.”

The agency, charged with protecting public health around toxic sites, said some parts of the document – dealing with lead, soil pesticides and fish contamination – remain accurate in characterizing the past environmental hazards.

But the water section, analyzing toxins that seeped into wells from a neighboring dry cleaner and from Camp Lejeune industrial activity, contained “troublesome” information, said Cibulas.

The Marine Corps is asking anyone who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune before 1987 to register to receive notifications regarding historic drinking water contamination at the camp. So far, more than 110,000 have registered, including 1,509 from Washington state.

As many as one million people may have been exposed to water toxins over 30 years before the bad wells were closed in 1987, health officials now say. The Marines estimated the number at 500,000.

Problems in the document included omission of the cancer-causing chemical benzene, despite high levels found in a well in 1984, said Cibulas.

Additionally, the contaminating solvents the report focused on have been characterized in newer science as even more potent, he added. Levels of one solvent, called TCE, measured higher than in any known public water supply, an ATSDR scientist said.

The health agency did not make any new conclusions, but pulled its flawed document from the Internet to redo its analysis with new science.

The health officials are continuing a separate study into whether fetuses might have been harmed by the water.

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