Concerns about possible cancer-causing contamination at the Laurel Bay family housing near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, has led Marine officials to launch a new public relations effort and led Navy officials to distribute guidance to Navy health care providers worldwide.
The mounting attention to the alleged health hazards compelled the Marine Corps base's officials to hold two recent town hall meetings for residents, and provide more information online and through social media about their investigation. The installation has created a website with information for current and previous residents of Laurel Bay family housing.
"At this point, no reliable information yet establishes that conditions at Laurel Bay cause health problems," wrote MCAS Beaufort commanding officer Col. Peter D. Buck, in a Jan. 12 letter to residents of the Laurel Bay housing area after news reports of the health concerns were published online in Military Times and other news outlets.
These concerns were prompted by two Marine Corps wives whose children were diagnosed with leukemia in the last several years, and were former residents of the Laurel Bay housing area. After another child who was a former resident of Laurel Bay was diagnosed with cancer in December, they asked Marine officials to fast-track an investigation and disclose the results to military families who might be at risk.
Marine wife Amanda Whatley, posted a YouTube video Jan. 7, to alert other current and former Laurel Bay residents of their concerns, and encourage them to be aware of early warning signs of cancer.
"We are at a count of 13 diagnosed children," said Whatley's friend and fellow Marine wife Melany Stawnyczyj, whose son Roman was diagnosed with cancer at age four in 2012. "Childhood cancer is rare. We can not move slowly any more. Thirteen children is not a coincidence."
The two wives believe that the cause may be aging oil tanks that were buried in the ground near the houses and could have leaked benzene, a known carcinogen, into the soil and contaminated the nearby homes or local water supply. Military documents that Stawnyczyj provided to Military Times refer to unspecified contamination in the soil. All 1,251 known tanks have been removed from the approximately 1,100 home sites at Laurel Bay.
The two families have been working with base officials since early 2015, when they began questioning whether there was a link to Laurel Bay when Whatley's daughter Katie was also diagnosed with cancer.
MCAS Beaufort officials requested a study of the possible contamination and whether it could lead to a potential hazard for families. It began in June, 2015 and has yet to be completed, according to MCAS Beaufort spokeswoman Capt. Sharon Sisbarro said.
The study is being conducted by the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center, which also developed and distributed the guidance to Navy health care providers around the world to help them address concerns of families that have lived at Laurel Bay, Sisbarro said.
Navy health care providers also have access to adult and pediatric Navy cancer specialists for further consultation, she said.
The study has taken more than 19 months because it is an "exhaustive, two-pronged process" that includes an environmental study and an epidemiological study, Sisbarro said.
The epidemiological study involves children -- including unborn children -- of active duty Marine Corps and Navy personnel assigned at MCAS Beaufort and Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island from 2002 to 2016, Sisbarro said. To date, more than 3,000 documents have been reviewed, she said.
Officials with the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery referred questions about that headquarter's involvement to MCAS Beaufort.
In his letter to residents, Buck – who is also a Laurel Bay resident -- said "it takes a courageous and unselfish mother to share her heartache in a desire to help other Marine families."
Buck said he "wholeheartedly" agrees with Whatley's encouragement in the video to seek medical attention if there is any concern for a child's health.
Stawnyczyj and Whatley became more concerned after another child who was a previous resident of Laurel Bay was diagnosed with cancer in December. Whatley posted a YouTube video Jan. 7, telling the story of her daughter Katie's cancer diagnosis in January 2015, at age 6. Her intent, she said, is to get the word out about some Laurel Bay children's cancer diagnoses, and to encourage current and former Laurel Bay residents to seek medical attention quickly if their child is exhibiting possible symptoms.
"A lack of information about either the facts or the command's actions can cause anxiety," Buck said in his letter to residents. "I have tried to avoid providing incomplete or inaccurate information, which could have caused speculation." Thus, he said, he decided to hold the town hall meetings to alleviate some of the anxiety. A combined total of about 500 people attended the meetings Jan. 17 and 18.
As of Jan. 19, Whatley's video had been viewed more than 48,000 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.
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.
On the installation website, Buck notes that base officials received a letter from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control on Jan. 13 stating that they had reviewed cancer rates in the zip code which includes all of Laurel Bay housing. "The report concludes that there is neither an increased rate of cancer nor cancer fatalities in the Zip Code around Laurel Bay," Buck noted.
Information was not immediately available from that agency -- including whether South Carolina officials have attempted to get information about cases involving previous Laurel Bay residents.
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."
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 thousands of families have previously lived there.
"People are scared," Stawnyczyj said. "But they are even more scared of the backlash if they speak up too much. This is a hard position for our families."
The Center for Disease Control provides information about early warning signs of leukemia.