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Marine families raise concerns their children's cancers may be linked to South Carolina base

January 11, 2017 (Photo Credit: Screenshot via YouTube)
Two Marine Corps wives say a housing area in Beaufort, South Carolina, may be causing cancer in children and they want top Marine officials to fast-track an investigation and disclose the results to military families who might be at risk.

“We are at a count of 13 diagnosed children," said Melany Stawnyczyj, whose son Roman was diagnosed with cancer at age 4 in 2012. "Childhood cancer is rare. We can not move slowly any more. Thirteen children is not a coincidence.”

Roman completed chemotherapy treatments in November 2015. Three of the other cases were fatal, Stawnyczyj said. Stawnyczyj's husband was a drill instructor at Parris Island and is now a Marine captain on active duty.

A spokesman at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort confirmed a study is underway to determine whether there is "an exposure pathway for potential health hazards" in the Laurel Bay housing area and other areas of MCAS Beaufort, and at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island.

The Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center is conducting the study at Laurel Bay housing, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, and MCAS Beaufort, said Marine Corps Capt. Clay Groover, spokesman for the installation. "At the conclusion of the study, the findings will be released to the families and the public."

The study began in June 2015.

But Stawnyczyj and another Marine wife have launched their own public awareness effort. Amanda Whatley, Stawnyczyj's friend and fellow Marine wife, posted a YouTube video Saturday telling the story of her daughter Katie's cancer diagnosis in January 2015, at age 6.

“We’re not scientists, we’re just trying to get information,” Stawnyczyj said.




As of Wednesday afternoon, the video had been viewed more than 42,000 times on YouTube.  In the days since it was posted, current and former residents of the housing area have contacted Whatley to say they lack knowledge about the situation, and some have revealed that their own child had a similar diagnosis, Stawnyczyj  said.

“We feel the investigation is too slow in happening and that we needed to move forward in urgency,” Stawnyczyj wrote in a Monday letter to David Wilson, logistics officer at MCAS Beaufort. Whatley created her video as an outreach to other parents to spread awareness and support, Stawnyczyj said.

The two wives believe that the problem may come from aging oil tanks that were buried in the ground near the houses, which could have leaked benzene, a known carcinogen, into the soil and contaminated the homes or local water supply.

The base commander has been updating the two families on the investigation, noting in the last communication in December to the Stawnyczyj family that the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center "is working steadily on the study regarding Laurel Bay." 

Base commander Col. Peter D. Buck noted in that update that officials expect the report will "identify areas where additional information could help determine more definitive conclusions," according to a copy of Buck's letter that Stawnyczyj shared with Military Times.

"We feel for any family when their child is diagnosed with a disease. ... We are aware of the video and we appreciate the family's concerns," base spokesman Groover said. "It took real courage for this mom to tell her story in such a candid and sincere way, and for her to remain so strong for her daughter." 

It’s not clear whether other health agencies have been involved, although the two families' doctors reported the cases to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC referred questions to the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Information was not immediately available from that agency. 

'WE JUST WANTED ANSWERS'

Four Laurel Bay children who have been diagnosed with cancer were born within a year of each other and lived in and visited the same areas, said Stawnyczyj, adding that there were no other known commonalities between all of the children. 

Her son Roman was born after she and her husband moved from the housing. They lived in the housing for a month and then bought a house less than a mile from the military housing facility, she said, adding that she and her family spent a lot of time on base and in the housing area. They were stationed there from 2005 to 2008. 

Now, former residents are scattered around the country.  

“The weird thing is, if Amanda and I didn’t know each other, we wouldn’t have thought of looking into this,” Stawnyczyj said. Both women are married to Marines who were drill instructors at Parris Island at the time. 

When Stawnyczyj found out that then-6-year-old Katie Whatley was diagnosed with cancer in 2015, she began to connect dots. She and Whatley started out cautiously, worried about backlash that could affect their husbands’ careers, since they are close to retirement. 

“We just wanted answers, and information about what preventive measures they were taking. We felt it was fair to families,” Stawnyczyj said.

She hopes more awareness will help families identify the possible early warning signs of leukemia, which is the most prevalent kind of cancer in children. 

“I don’t want to see other parents or anyone go through this,” Stawnyczyj said. In her son Roman’s case, she said, “I was amazed we caught it that early. I thought he was having appendicitis.”

BENEATH LAUREL BAY

According to an internal Marine Corps document about the removal of the storage tanks, the Laurel Bay military housing was originally built in the mid-1950s. Heating oil tanks were installed when the homes were built, and the tanks were last used in the early 1980s. At that time, some of the tanks were emptied out and filled with sand. 

In the early 2000s, according to the document, when the housing was turned over to a private developer as part of the public-private partnership for military housing, and the PPV partner was removing tanks that interfered with demolition or renovation projects, tests showed that about 70 percent of the tank sites had soil contamination “above state action levels,” according to the document that Stawnyczyj shared with Military Times.

The document did not include details about that contamination. 

However, the document stated, “Because of the multiple tank situation and the high percentage of sites with elevated soil contamination, MCAS Beaufort determined it would be best to remove all tanks remaining after PPV partner completed their removals.” 

It’s not clear how many of those tanks have been removed; some of the houses reportedly  had as many as four tanks buried underground, according to the document. 

Stawnyczyj said base officials have been providing updates since their initial meeting in 2015 when they expressed their concerns, but these updates have been vague. 

After learning that another child of a previous Laurel Bay resident had been diagnosed with leukemia in December, Stawnyczyj and her husband again contacted Beaufort officials to express their concern that the family of the recently diagnosed child had no idea that any investigation or possibility of water/soil contamination existed, or that other children had been diagnosed with cancer.

The Marine Corps "has remained supportive of the families involved and the [Navy Marine Corps Public Health Center] study, held a town hall information meeting in April 2016, mailed information letters to Laurel Bay residents, and provided monthly updates of the progress of the study," base spokesman Groover told Military Times.

"We have also responded to NMCPHC information/data requests. Our goal is to remain as transparent as possible throughout the process and to provide the NMCPHC study results when complete," Groover said.
Until the study is completed, he said, "it would be speculative to presume which areas, if any, were affected.

"Like the families, we look forward to the results of the NMCPHC study so we can better understand the situation and provide the appropriate support to families."   

SHARING HER STORY

In her video, Whatley urges people to share the information with every Marine and Navy family they know who has lived at Laurel Bay housing. 

Whatley said she later realized that daughter Katie had exhibited some of the early signs of leukemia. She was puzzled that Katie's appetite was waning, she'd lost a little weight, and was having trouble sleeping. She discussed it with her sister-in-law, who is a nurse.

Katie's symptoms suddenly got much worse a few weeks later, and they took her to the emergency room. Within 36 hours, Katie was on her way to the operating room, with multiple organ failure, fighting for her life. 

“We’re fairly confident that had we not taken her to the emergency room that night, she would have died in her sleep,” Whatley says in her video. “Had anybody told me in the previous years… had I ever, ever heard that children were getting sick and that these were the symptoms, and these were the things to watch out for, I would have taken her to her pediatrician right away when she had those simple symptoms. Had I done that, Katie's cancer would have been diagnosed at an early stage and she would have been a low-risk patient. ...

“If I had had in the back of my mind that cancer was happening to children who lived where we lived, I would have taken her to the doctor so much sooner and really spared her a lot of pain and suffering,” she said. 

Katie has an unclear future, said Whatley. 

Early warning signs for leukemia, per the CDC, include fever, chills and other flu-like symptoms; weakness and fatigue; frequent infections; loss of appetite; weight loss; swollen or tender lymph nodes, liver or spleen; easy bleeding or bruising; tiny red spots under the skin; swollen or bleeding gums; sweating, especially at night; bone or joint pain; anemia. Most if not all of these symptoms can be related to other, less-serious conditions, CDC documents state. 

Whatley and Stawnyczyj emphasize they're not criticizing the Marine Corps, and note that officials are working with them in the investigation. But, they say, people still live in the area, and many hundreds of families have previously lived there. 

To those who have lived at Laurel Bay, Whatley says in her video, “If you notice something is not quite right with your child, take them to the doctor, Hopefully there's nothing seriously wrong, but if they do have cancer, the outcome is better if caught at an early stage.
 
"And hopefully we'll save someone," she said. 

Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at  kjowers@militarytimes.com .
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