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Marine families in Hawaii worry soil under base housing may be toxic

Families in Kaneohe Bay base housing worry about the poison that may be under their feet

Feb. 16, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Residents of the Forest City housing complex at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, are worried about the possible presence of the pesticide chlordane in the soil around their homes.
Residents of the Forest City housing complex at Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, are worried about the possible presence of the pesticide chlordane in the soil around their homes. (Marine Corps photos)
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Marine families who live in base housing in Hawaii worry that they have been exposed to a toxic chemical in the soil. They are organizing and gathering data on health issues they fear might have been caused by exposure to chlordane, a probable carcinogen.

The concern about the health of Marines, their spouses and children at the Forest City military housing complex, a community of 2,300 homes aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kaneohe Bay, reignites a controversy, almost a decade old, about the quality of the soil underfoot and whether the Navy did enough to ensure the safety of the people living there.

Walter Chun, a safety officer assigned to a construction project completed there in 2006, alleges that the Navy Department ignored recommendations from Chun and the construction company to dispose of the top 18 inches of soil before building more than 200 duplexes. The soil contained too much chlordane, a commonly used pesticide that was banned in 1988, according to Chun, who led some of the initial testing of the soil.

Now, nearly eight years later, military families who moved into those duplexes have taken to Facebook to discuss new concerns. More than 130 people were added to a group chat, started Feb. 2, that alerts families who have lived in Forest City housing during the construction or after, that they might have been exposed to chemicals that could produce long-term health effects.

They wot just about the chlordane, but other known carcinogens including heptachlor, heptachlor epoxide and DDT. Like chlordane, the compounds were commonly used pesticides. All have been banned for decades.

The Marine Corps did not immediately provide responses to questions about the levels of those compounds around base housing, although the Navy has insisted for years that the pesticides do not present a significant health risk.

One woman with the Facebook group chat indicated she met with a member of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to discuss the residents’ concerns. She also enlisted the help of attorneys. Asked to comment, one of the attorneys said he was not yet ready to publicly discuss the issue.

The members of the Facebook group have also sent out a survey that other Forest City residents can fill out so they can collect data on health issues. The survey asks when and where they lived on base, and whether they or their family members have developed any health problems since. It also asks whether they or their family members ever grew or ate fruits and vegetables from gardens grown in base housing areas.

As the Facebook group chat expanded over the next several days, members began sharing concerns about specific medical problems they have encountered. Some referenced breathing issues like asthma, while others brought up more serious concerns about mysterious illnesses, and they now wonder if they resulted from exposure to chlordane. But whether any of their very real medical issues have a connection to the pesticides in the ground is far from clear.

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies chlordane as a probable human carcinogen. According to the EPA’s website, the short-term effects of exposure to chlordane can include gastrointestinal distress and neurological symptoms, such as tremors and convulsions. Longer-term inhalation exposure results in effects on the nervous system.

Studies have also shown links between inhaled exposure and non-Hodgkin lymphoma as well as liver cancer in mice that ingested the compound.

Chun, who was subcontracted by the builder, Metcalf Construction Co., said the levels of chlordane found in the soil were 20 times what the EPA would allow without taking action. The Navy should have removed the top 18 inches of soil or covered it up with concrete and a layer soil to seal it off, he said.

Those were the recommendations they made, Chun said, who has worked in the field of safety and health management for 45 years. But the Navy didn’t take those steps.

Navy officials have disputed Chun’s claims for years. Although officials aboard Marine Corps Base Hawaii didn’t immediately respond to questions about what military families should do if they are worried about pesticide exposure, they did provide a press release that the Navy issued in 2006 when the controversy began. Claims that military families are at risk are “simply untrue,” it asserts.

“The safety and well being of our military members and their families is the first concern to the Navy, and we would never knowingly expose them to any unsafe health risk,” the release states.

It also references an extensive study the department conducted to determine if the amount of chlordane in the soil was safe for human health and the environment.

“The study’s results show that the overwhelming majority of the soil is safe to use,” the release states. “One small area between two housing foundations contains higher levels of chlordane that requires remediation action.”

The Navy also released a fact sheet on chlordane, explaining that it was commonly used across the country for decades. In bold letters, it stated that Forest City housing is safe because chlordane is generally found below the surface and is covered by grass and other plants, cutting down on families’ exposure to bare soil.

It also states that health effects as a result of exposure to chlordane typically result from higher levels over long periods of time.

“... Most service members live in many different housing units during their time in the military. Therefore, our military families spend a relatively short amount of time in each home.”

William Chain, an assistant professor of chemistry at University of Hawaii at Manoa, said if the chlordane levels were above those recommended by the EPA, even living in the housing for three or four years at a time would concern him. The easiest way to avoid exposure to carcinogens like chlordane is simple, he said: Don’t live there.

Chun, the safety officer, said the Navy’s assumption that people wouldn’t be affected because they lived there in short spurts is flawed. Back in 2006, he responded to the Navy’s inaction by filing complaints with the EPA and the Hawaii Health Department. Hawaiian media reported on the controversy at the time. The EPA kicked the complaint to the health department, which took no action, stating a lack of jurisdiction aboard a military installation, he said.

Chun believes the Navy failed to take some factors into account. When he was working on the construction project, he said, he saw a lot of young families with newborns and toddlers living on base. What might be acceptable levels of a toxic chemical for an adult might be too high for a baby, he said.

The Navy and Marine Corps should also do more to alert people to the possible risks, he added.

Many of the Facebook group members said they were surprised by the possible exposure to chlordane. Some said they were never told about this issue before moving there.

A 46-page community handbook on the Forest City housing website does include one paragraph on precautions families can take to lower their risk of exposure, including washing their hands after direct soil contact and washing any plant or vegetable grown on-site before consumption.

Questions about whether the Navy is still testing the soil to monitor the levels of chlordane or other toxic chemicals weren’t answered by press time. But the news release put out in 2006 stated that the Navy, like civilian property owners, does not routinely test the soil around homes.

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