Michigan veterans face uphill battle proving toxic exposure
By GARRET ELLISON | MLive.com | Published: November 26, 2019
BEAVERTON, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Roger Arvo knows that he and his family were exposed to toxic chemicals while stationed at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda. He’s certain that exposure contributed to his mastectomy and ongoing sleep disorder, his wife Linda’s breast cancer and thyroid disorder, and his son Peter’s nerve damage and cardiac birth defects.
Arvo, 68, has official reports showing the base drinking water was contaminated with chlorinated solvents like trichlorethylene when they lived on Cedar Drive in the late 1970s, a time when Michigan regulators say the water was also tainted by fluorochemicals called PFAS.
Doctors say the family’s symptoms corresponded with known effects of toxic exposure. Despite that, Arvo says he can’t get coverage through the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system for all the physician exams, hospital visits, surgical procedures and other expensive treatments. The VA, he says, won’t even look at his evidence.
“They literally won’t take my paperwork,” Arvo said.
Arvo’s troubles are not unique. Because the VA does not recognize a “service connection” between well-documented legacy contamination at bases like Wurtsmith and illnesses among those who worked there, veterans’ benefit claims are routinely denied when seeking coverage for ailments they insist are related to exposure to toxic chemicals.
The VA sets a high bar for such coverage and meeting it can even be difficult for exposure to substances like TCE, which is known to cause cancer. Although Wurtsmith veterans do have some allies in Congress, the fight to make their case could be a long one.
It took decades before the Department of Defense stopped forcing Vietnam War veterans who were exposed to an infamous dioxin-based herbicide named Agent Orange to jump through hoops for health benefits. That battle still isn’t over in some quarters, either. The Trump Administration has come under fire this year for delaying the addition of certain ailments to list of covered conditions.
What Wurtsmith veterans seek is a “presumption” of service connection between their illnesses and exposure to chemicals like PFAS, which has prompted state health warnings in Oscoda about consuming fish, deer and touching surface water foam in contaminated areas.
Without that presumptive designation, “they are very stuck,” said Arnie Leriche, a former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency engineer who is co-chair of the Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board in Oscoda.
Meanwhile, he said, veterans are dying.
“I get a lot of messages from people saying, ‘I’m not doing so good,’ ” said James M. Bussey, 52, a former airman who leads a group called the Veterans and Civilians Clean Water Alliance, which has been pushing for the presumptive designation for Wurtsmith veterans.
“I had another one pass away about three weeks ago.”
Bussey’s group started in 2016 after the Michigan health officials issued a drinking water advisory around Oscoda for PFAS, which is pervasive in the groundwater thanks to liberal use of a PFAS-based firefighting foam called AFFF for base training and emergencies. Although the group had some success raising the issue’s profile with lawmakers and health officials since then, Bussey said their diffuse ranks have been thinned by attrition and fatigue.
Bussey remembers crawling through AFFF foam after fire suppression system malfunctions in the B-52 hangars at Wurtsmith. He also drank base water and did a lot of local fishing. With the group’s backing, Bussey was evaluated by the War Related Illness and Injury Study Center in New Jersey and his blood showed elevated PFAS levels, particularly for the compound PFHxS, a chemical commonly associated with toxic firefighting foam.
He’s been able to get medication and some treatment for sleep apnea and other conditions from the VA, but most of his disability benefit claims have been denied, he said.
Glenn Bluhm, 75, said a veteran’s service officer in Texas helping with a hearing loss claim reacted strongly to learning he was stationed at Wurtsmith. Without hesitation, the man reached into a file in his desk and handed him an eight-page report on base contamination.
Bluhm was dumbstruck. He was a morse code operator in the Air Force and lived at Wurtsmith with his wife and young daughter for only a year in the late 1960s, but recalled the time as turning point in the family’s health. His wife suffered multiple miscarriages and was eventually forced to have a hysterectomy. Bluhm developed heart arrythmia and had tumors removed from his limbs. Their daughter later developed tumors and thyroid issues.
Bluhm began filing claims in 2012. At one point, he got a call from a VA claims officer in Georgia “who said he knows nothing about any Wurtsmith issues, so he’s got to deny the claim,” Bluhm said. Because much of the family’s health struggles date back to the 1970s, finding medical and insurance records to substantiate them has been difficult.
“They’re going to continue to deny until I die because it’s not on the presumptive list,” Bluhm said. With the VA system, “it’s a struggle for everything, even under emergency care.”
According to the VA, service connections between toxic exposure and illnesses are sometimes approved on an “individual, case-by-case basis after a physical examination and a review of a veteran’s case,” according to VA spokesperson Randy Noller.
When it comes to PFAS exposure, the VA argues that more epidemiological study is needed before any service-connection can be established — a position advocates around the issue dispute.
The VA relies on “the latest scientific evidence and medical literature available” when making presumptive coverage decisions, Noller wrote via email. The VA doesn’t believe PFAS exposure meets that bar yet, because, “at this time, there is no scientific evidence linking exposure to PFAS with any particular medical conditions."
When asked how that squares with conclusions by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which acknowledges linkages between PFAS exposure and several conditions, Noller wrote that the ATSDR "does not assert a conclusive link between PFAS and any health conditions.”
On its website, the ATSDR, which is the toxicology arm of the US. Centers for Disease Control, states that, although research is ongoing, human studies have shown exposure to some PFAS compounds can “affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; affect the immune system; and increase the risk of cancer.”
Nonetheless, the VA says "overall scientific and medical evidence is currently inconclusive.”
Some policy experts say that position ignores pertinent research.
“Perhaps the VA has been hibernating for the past decade,” said Erik Olson, senior food and health director at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is closely following the PFAS issue.
“A series of peer-reviewed scientific studies have documented several specific health harms from PFAS,” Olson said, citing the “probable links” to cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, and pregnancy-induced hypertension found during the groundbreaking C8 study of 70,000 people in West Virginia depicted in the new Hollywood film “Dark Waters."
“Other studies have reinforced those conclusions, as well as documenting other adverse health effects including impacts on the immune system,” Olson said.
In Michigan, state officials have helped lay foundational work for epidemiological study of Wurtsmith veterans but have yet to begin any real health data gathering. State environmental regulators studied base water use history and concluded last year that Wurtsmith wells were likely contaminated between 1978 and 1993. Contamination activists in Oscoda have pushed for local blood testing, but state health officials appear leery of going down that road.
The base wells were replaced with Lake Huron-sourced municipal water in 1997 and officials with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) say that’s enough time for most of the PFAS to have left the bodies of people who were exposed. Inconclusive results could fuel a narrative that exposure among the Wurtsmith community wasn’t severe.
Health officials appear to be leaning toward other options like analyzing immune system function, thyroids, hormone and cholesterol levels and other markers to asses past exposure.
“There’s a real possibility that blood levels are not going to be accurately representative of past exposure and the harm they may have experienced,” said Kory Groetsch, director of environmental health at DHHS. Blood data is more of a snapshot in time. “Everybody thinks of blood data as the golden chalice of knowledge. It’s really not.”
There have been some efforts in Congress to help veterans of Wurtsmith and other U.S. bases with PFAS contamination, but they’re still in early stages. In 2018, Congress approved $10 million in an annual defense bill to begin health studies of communities near eight U.S. military bases that were exposed to PFAS in the drinking water. The ATSDR began developing those exposure assessments this year.
Although Oscoda isn’t part of that site list, the hope is that effort can eventually expand the list of known illnesses linked to PFAS exposure, said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint.
In 2018, Kildee helped spearhead a bill called the VET PFAS Act that would require the VA to cover treatment of certain health conditions related to PFAS exposure. Those illnesses would be automatically considered a service-connected disability, making veterans and their families eligible for VA disability payments and medical treatment. The legislation was reintroduced this year, but Kildee said it wasn’t folded into the National Defense Authorization Act that was, for a time this fall, serving as vehicle for a raft of PFAS-related bills in Congress.
“We just continue to push on this,” Kildee said.
“We know this is going to be a big issue and it’s going to be expensive and that’s one of the reasons it’s hard to get traction on, because there are a lot of competing priorities,” he said.
Kildee sponsored another bill last year that hasn’t been reintroduced, which would have helped veterans exposed to volatile organic compounds like trichloroethylene (TCE) at Wurtsmith also receive related health and disability benefits.
The ATSDR reevaluated TCE exposure at Wurtsmith last year and concluded that, based on updated screening levels, it may have increased cancer risk in Oscoda. The known carcinogen was found in base drinking water in 1977 and cleanup began in the early 1980s after the state of Michigan sued the Air Force. The TCE levels in Wurtsmith base drinking water were documented at more than 1,000 times the EPA’s current limit of five parts per billion.
Leriche said the TCE pollution is a wrinkle that, ironically, works against efforts to obtain presumptive benefits for PFAS exposure because the additional contaminant history complicates the universe of symptoms epidemiologists must assess. Leriche said top ATSDR officials told him that helped keep Oscoda off the eight base PFAS study list.
The TCE issue traces more closely to a similar push that led to presumptive benefits for Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. In 2012, Congress passed a law that forced the VA to automatically presume diseases like adult leukemia, bladder, kidney and liver cancer, Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and Parkinson's disease were caused by base water exposure.
Wurtsmith needs a TCE champion, Leriche said.
“There’s no one really pushing it that I know of,” he said. “If Congressman Kildee isn’t going to, then it’s not being pushed by anyone. And it’s a crying shame because Lejeune got theirs. They set the framework. They set the precedent.”
The Van Etten Creek Dam, between Van Etten Lake and the AuSable River, on June 1, 2016. The creek is contaminated with chemicals from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. Dozens of Oscoda Township households were advised not to drink their well water by state and local health officials this year after new residential well testing showed concerning levels of perfluorinated chemicals
GARRET ELLISON, MLIVE/TNS