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Wurtsmith Air Force Base water may have caused veteran cancers

By GARRET ELLISON | MLive.com, Walker, Mich. | Published: August 7, 2018

OSCODA, Mich. (Tribune News Service) — Drinking water laced with high levels of poisonous chemicals may be to blame for cancer and other chronic disease among veterans and families who lived at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan, according to a new federal health report draft.

That conclusion, reached in July by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), sets the table for Congress to consider legislation that would force the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend health benefits to base veterans without making them somehow prove their illnesses are linked to chemical exposure.

No bill has yet been introduced, although U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, says he's working on legislation similar to that which forced the VA to cover similar health claims at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where drinking water was contaminated with chlorinated solvents.

Those same chemicals, notably benzene and trichloroethylene (TCE), were documented at extremely high levels in Wurstmith water when the former B-52 bomber base was active.

"We must do more to help veterans exposed to harmful chemicals during their military service," said Kildee in a statement. "It is troubling that veterans may have a higher risk of cancer and other health effects if they were exposed to TCE and other harmful chemicals."

"This report's findings demonstrate that all levels of government must do more to help veterans get the health care they need," he said.

The ATSDR report concludes that people who consumed or had skin contact with Wurtsmith water "may be at an increased risk for cancer." The finding is based on new lower risk levels for exposure to TCE and benzene than were used in a 17-year-old assessment, which called it "unknown" whether past contamination posed a hazard.

The updated report conclusions are based largely on long-term exposure over a period of years, but note that, for pregnant mothers, even short term exposure to TCE during the first trimester could have resulted in heart birth defects in their baby children.

The base opened in 1923 and closed in 1993. TCE was found in Wurtsmith water in 1977, but the report notes the drinking water wells on base "could have (been) contaminated for many years before the initial discovery." All wells were shut down by 1997, when the base switched to a municipal system which draws from Lake Huron.

The Air Force installed a groundwater treatment system to cleanup TCE in the early 1980s after being sued by the state of Michigan.

The ATSDR looked at past levels of TCE and benzene, but did not consider exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, contamination caused by base firefighters using chemical-based firefighting foam. The chemicals were found in Wurtsmith groundwater in 1998 but did not get significant attention until the state issued a local advisory for well owners in 2016.

According to the ATSDR, TCE levels in a well at the corner of Arrow Street and N. Skeel Avenue were as high as 5,173 parts-per-billion (ppb) during a 1977 test — more than 1,000 times the EPA's current limit of 5-ppb for TCE in drinking water. TCE in another well on Jet Street near the present day Wurtsmith museum was 1,739-ppb.

"When it's all said and done, I think the exposures to TCE and vinyl chloride up there are going to be higher than Camp Lejeune," said Jerry Ensminger, a veteran who spearheaded the effort to get health benefits at Lejuene after the death of his daughter, Janey.

Ensminger began pushing for exposure-related benefits in 1997. In 2012, Congress passed a law named after his daughter 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.

As with Wurtsmith, the initial ATSDR public health assessment of Lejeune contamination lowballed the exposure concern. It was eventually updated in 2009. The Veterans & Civilians Clean Water Alliance group of Wurtsmith veterans and families pushed the ATSDR to update the base report last year. Ensminger likened the hurdle to awaiting formal diagnosis of an obvious problem.

"You know your house is on fire. You see the fire and the smoke, but your house is not 'officially' on fire until the fire department gets there and says so," he said. "That's the same thing with these contamination sites and toxic exposures. You need an official to come in and say, 'yea, they were exposed at harmful levels.'"

"Now, somebody has to go to Capitol Hill."

Kildee said he's working both sides of the aisle for bipartisan support on a Wurtsmith bill, but did not offer a timeline or specifics. Congress has been appropriating money to address contamination at military bases recently, but those funds are specifically tied to PFAS exposure.

The cost of extending presumptive benefits to Wurtsmith veterans could be high. The VA estimated last year it will pay $2.2 billion by 2022 to Lejeune veterans under the new program, and that doesn't include coverage for certain civilians and family members.

Wurtsmith veteran Scott Flannery of Manassas, Virginia, lived on base in the late 1970s. He's considered completely and permanently disabled after a 32-year military career.

Flannery, who helped push for the health assessment update, said he's glad that everything has "come to fruition" but also hopes the federal government will "do the right thing with the issues affecting them now with the firefighting foam."

"I'm hoping all the best for all those who could have been potentially affected," Flannery said.

©2018 MLive.com, Walker, Mich.
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