NAPLES, Italy — Three American families in Naples are caught in the middle of the U.S. Navy’s slow and careful assessment of how toxic their neighborhood might be.
One family is fighting the Navy over an eviction notice, despite being notified that tests showed their ground water is contaminated.
Two other families wonder why the Navy didn’t test their ground water, which they share with their evicted neighbor, or why it didn’t tell them the water was contaminated. And, they wonder why they weren’t forced to move.
The Navy says it only informs residents of potential health risks or asks them to move when they have firm evidence of contamination. And without tests, they can’t make that recommendation.
The saga, which has the families in the off-base neighborhood of Casal di Principe ensconced in a bureaucratic ordeal, started seven months ago.
That’s when the Navy informed Gayle and Kent Eaton that tests on the ground water under their stately Mediterranean-style home found unacceptable levels of a potential carcinogen called tetrachloroethene — also known as perch lo roe the ne, or PCE.
The Navy sent the Eatons a letter in December telling them they must move. They’re resisting because they’re set to leave Naples altogether in the fall and don’t want to move twice.
The Navy did not test the homes of two other American families living next door to the Eatons, because experts believe it is "fairly certain" that ground water under all the homes in the neighborhood is contaminated.
The Velluccis and Setterbergs, who live next door to the Eatons, found out about the ground water contaminants after Gayle Eaton contacted a reporter about her fight against the forced move.
The Velluccis and Setterbergs were stunned, wondering why they hadn’t been notified of the toxic ground water.
"They told me not to worry," Joanna Setterberg said. "That if they had any concerns, someone would notify us."
The two families have since requested to be moved out of Casal. Those requests have been granted by the Navy.
The Navy says it did not notify two families of the potential health risks because their homes were not part of the testing done in the Navy’s ongoing public health assessment. But when the families asked for their homes to be tested, the Navy said it wasn’t necessary because other homes in the area had already tested positive for contaminants.
"This is very unsettling," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Joe Vellucci. "I feel aggravated and disappointed."
Vellucci, along with his pregnant wife and 18-month-old son, live adjacent to the Eatons.
"I’m very concerned about this," Vellucci said. "If their water and soil is contaminated, wouldn’t ours be?"
"Consistent with our policy throughout the Naples [Public Health Evaluation], Environmental Health Information Center personnel from Naples Naval Hospital contact tenants when we have sampling results for a home that are unacceptable," said the base commander, Capt. Robert Rabuse.
Since the Navy began its health assessment of the Naples region in February 2008, it has published more than 50 stories in the base newspaper and has set up a Web site to answer any questions, Navy officials say. Also, concerned residents have been encouraged to contact health officials.
To date, the Navy has moved 16 families out of Casal because of ground water contamination.
Widening the net
Health concerns have plagued this southern Italian metropolis for decades as the city and its surrounding areas have endured tons of uncollected trash on the street, illegal burning of garbage, toxic waste dumping, and reports of a rise in cancer rates and respiratory problems.
Those concerns led the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center to study whether assignments to Naples could endanger the health of servicemembers and their families.
In September, part of the probe revealed traces of PCE in three homes rented to Americans in Casal di Principe, prompting experts to then test homes within 500 feet to gauge the size of a "plume" of contaminated ground water, according to Dr. Paul Gillooly of the health center.
The Eatons’ home was among those tested in the second round.
Tap water testing revealed "pretty high" levels of PCE, a byproduct of industrial dry cleaning solvents, Gillooly said.
The levels registered at the Eaton home were 2.5 times than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminate level for drinking-water standards, he said. The Eatons have since switched to city water.
However, Gillooly said it’s the chemical’s gas form that proved more concerning.
"That particular exposure cannot be mitigated by switching to bottled water or city water," Gillooly said. "That particular chemical is present in the ground water located beneath this house. Now, PCE can evaporate. In other words, it can become a gas and can migrate up through the soil and into the house and be released into the indoor air."
In high concentrations, PCE can cause dizziness, headache, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness, and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Animal studies using much higher amounts of PCE than most people are exposed to show the chemical can cause liver and kidney damage, the CDC says.
It also notes that the Department of Health and Human Services has determined that PCEs "may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen."
When asked why the Navy did not notify the two families of their neighbors’ test, Navy officials said they are following their policy: If they have evidence, they take action.
Positive results in homes in the 500-foot range then led the Navy to widen the net to 1,500 feet, Gillooly said.
"What that means for us is, we’re fairly certain that we have in this particular 1,500-foot step-out area of investigation, a ground-water plume that is contaminated with PCE under these houses," he said.
"We have a little bit more sampling to do and when we’re finished with that, we’ll present that data to Navy leadership with some recommendations and then they’ll make ... management decisions about the rest of the houses in that area."
But it’s not necessary to test every house, Gillooly said.
"If we have actionable data on an individual house, we’re going to take action on that," he said. "At the same time, we’re trying to build a bigger picture of what exactly is happening in this area.
"What we’re really concerned with is how big is this plume, how many houses above it does it impact, and then make our final determination of what to do with all houses."
Mitigating the risks
In addition to moving people, the Navy has provided bottled water to all off-base residents, and since late last year required landlords to provide bottled water for their tenants. In November, it also imposed a "new lease suspension zone," which prevents incoming personnel from moving into areas surrounding Naples that were identified as potentially unsafe.
Residents who wish to move from those zones, which include the towns of Villa Literno, Casal di Principe, Marcianise and Arzano, can do so, Rabuse said. In addition to the 16 families the Navy required to move, seven families have requested to move thus far, including the Setterbergs and Velluccis.
Experts said testing done on water sources that supply drinking water to facilities at the two Navy bases in Naples have turned up clean.
"I don’t want to take any chances," said Setterberg, who has a 23-month-old son and also is pregnant. "I would like to think that if we were in danger, they would tell us. ... I’m very angry."
The Eatons, however, are still fighting their eviction order.
They are set to move from Naples in September, and they say it makes little sense to be moved — at government expense — to another home, just to pack up again in few months, said Gayle Eaton, a civilian with the Human Resources Service Center in Naples. She suffers from a degenerative bone disease, unrelated to the water issue, that precludes her from laborious work or lifting any weight more than five pounds.
"It now appears that common sense and economy have been thrown to the wind at the expense of the United States taxpayer," she wrote in an e-mail to Rabuse, the base commander.
The Navy has spent $48,000 from its Intrastation Move Fund for the moves so far, Rabuse said.
See more information on the Health Assessment here.