Red Hill families exposed to anti-icing agent in 2021 fuel spill
The Honolulu Star-Advertiser March 21, 2023
HONOLULU (Tribune News Service) — Military and civilian families who drank and bathed in fuel-tainted water after a fuel spill at the Navy’s Red Hill facility in November 2021 contaminated their water also may have been exposed to an anti-icing additive, according to an internal state Department of Health memo that identifies the coolant as potentially posing the biggest health risk.
The compound, diethylene glycol monomethyl ether, found in fuel system icing inhibitor, is added to aviation fuels to help prevent the formation of ice crystals. DOH said the compound is not the same as the chemical used in car antifreeze, which it says is more toxic.
DOH said the Navy confirmed soon after the November 2021 fuel spill that contaminated the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam drinking water system that the anti-icing product was added to the fuel stored at Red Hill and said that a high level of the substance was detected in a water sample collected from the Navy a month after the spill in the vicinity of the Red Hill shaft.
DOH said that it alerted the Navy, as well as the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, about its concerns about additives in the jet fuel shortly after the spill.
The Feb. 2 memo from DOH provides estimates of contaminants that entered the drinking water system, including additives that the Navy put in its jet fuel.
The anti-icing compound “would have been quickly drawn into groundwater in contact with JP-5 (jet fuel) and is likely to have entered the Red Hill Shaft drinking water system ahead of less soluble and less mobile, petroleum contaminants,“ according to the DOH memo from Roger Brewer of DOH’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response office, which was sent to the state toxicologist and chief of DOH’s Safe Drinking Water branch.
Brewer writes that icing inhibitor compounds such as diethylene glycol monomethyl ether “could pose the most significant health risk from exposure to contaminated water.”
Approximately 10,000 households are believed to have been affected by the jet fuel contamination, and hundreds reported symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea, burning in their mouth and throat, chemical burns, skin rashes, seizures, dizziness and fainting. Some people reported that their pets got sick and died.
The DOH memo was provided to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser this week by attorneys for military families who are suing the Navy over the jet fuel exposure. In an amended complaint filed Monday, they argue that the Navy never informed families that the antifreeze was present in their contaminated water, which the Navy disputes.
Some of those exposed to contaminated water have said that they continue to suffer long-term health effects and have accused the military of gaslighting them by not taking their symptoms seriously.
“This amended lawsuit adds to the story of a government that poisoned its people, failed to treat them, and told sick families they were not sick, “ attorney Kristina Baehr, a lawyer for the families, said in a news release related to the amended complaint. “The fight goes on to hold the government accountable for its conduct before, during and after the Red Hill contamination. These families still do not know what exactly was in the water they ingested and bathed in for months.”
But the Navy says that information about jet fuel additives at Red Hill has been publicly available and that extensive water testing in the months following the fuel contamination did not detect the compound.
The Navy said that it had not been aware of the DOH memo until alerted by the media.
“We take the safety and health of the community seriously and continue to work with regulators and Defense Health Agency on the way ahead,“ a Navy spokesperson said by email.
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