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NAPLES, Italy — Volatile organic compounds — chemicals used for cleaning solvents — have been found in the tap water of three off-base homes where Americans live, requiring the Navy to move the families to other locations.

It also means the Navy will begin testing more than a dozen other homes in the area to make sure they are safe.

Tap water in the three homes tested positive for tetrachloroethylene (perchloroethylene), or PCE, and the situation "cannot be adequately mitigated through the use of bottled water," according to U.S. Navy officials.

The homes are among 166 off-base residences that experts tested as part of the first phase of the Navy’s ongoing health assessment, a study to determine if assignments to Naples jeopardize the health of servicemembers and their families.

The levels found were "very small" and would only pose a health risk to the residents after many years of exposure at much higher levels, said Paul Gillooly, Naples public health evaluation lead from the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center in Portsmouth, Va.

Still, because the chemical is hazardous to inhale, the families are being required to move, Gillooly said. The preferred relocation area is the Gricignano Support Site.

The families have not sought medical treatment for any symptoms that might be related to exposure to the chemicals — and nor would they need to because the concentration of the chemicals did not pose immediate health risks, said Dr. (Cmdr.) Timothy Halenkamp, head of the base’s preventive medical and occupational health office.

The three homes are in Casal di Principe, a town near the U.S. Navy’s support site base and home to hundreds of Americans. All three are serviced by well water. As a result of the discovery of PCE, experts from a Navy contractor, Tetra Tech, plan to test 13 other homes within a 500-foot radius of the three houses.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines VOCs as gases from certain solids or liquids that include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects, according to the agency’s Web site.

Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors — up to 10 times higher — than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products. They include paints and lacquers, paint strippers, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials and furnishings, office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper, graphics and craft materials including glues and adhesives, permanent markers, and photographic solutions.

For years, officials have blamed some health problems reported among Italians on illegal dumping of garbage, done by the Neapolitan mafia, called the Camorra, which circumvents dumping fees and regulations by disposing of garbage, including toxic waste, in improvised dumps.

U.S. officials said they can’t speculate on how the VOCs might have entered the drinking water systems of three houses.

"It’s a man-made chemical, and the most common way it gets into ground water is leeching from landfills or industrial dumps," Halenkamp said. "But there is no way for us to know for sure."

Of the 166 off-base homes surveyed, 51 tested positive for bacteria including total and fecal coliform.

"Results … are not all inclusive, but represent only a portion of our Phase I sampling which included 166 residences sampled out of over 1500 currently rented to U.S. personnel in the Naples area," read an all-hands e-mail message sent Wednesday. "The remaining results from Phase I sampling are expected by the end of October 2008. At that point, we will have a better overall view of the environment in which we are living."

The Navy periodically updates a Web site dedicated to keeping Naples-based residents informed about the ongoing assessment. The site is: http://www.nsa.naples.navy.mil/risk/index.cfm


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