A new report raises concerns that a military base in Michigan may have contaminated local drinking water supplies, putting base workers, veterans and other area residents at an increased risk of cancer.
Last month, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) published a draft report (PDF) on contaminants in the drinking water in Oscoda, Michigan, known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The area is the former home of the Wurtsmith Air Force Base (WAFB), and the report warns that people who drank or had skin contact with water in or around the base may face an increased cancer risk.
The ATSDR reached three conclusions in the draft report. First, some children and adults who used trichloroethylene (TCE) contaminated water in their homes in the past may be at risk for harmful non-cancer side effects. Second, some people who were exposed to TCE through the use of drinking water wells may be at an increased risk of cancer. Third, some on-base employees were exposed to benzene in drinking water in Building 5008 for many years and may be at increased risk of both hematological and cancer side effects.
The report stresses that these exposures occurred decades ago and that drinking water in the area currently is safe. The base was decommissioned in 1993.
“Most of the past exposures occurred before 1980,” the report notes. “Today, the majority of on-base and off-base facilities, residences, and camps receive their drinking water from the Huron Shores Regional Utility Authority, a source that is not located near WAFB and that meets all federal and state drinking water quality standards. A few wells that are still in service are being monitored by local authorities.”
TCE Health Risks
TCE is a widely used chlorinated solvent. It is used as a degreaser to clean machinery, paint stripper, adhesive solvent, is often used during the etching process and is sometimes used as an ingredient in paints and varnishes. Exposure to the chemical has already been shown to cause cancer in animals when inhaled or absorbed by the skin in large amounts.
Many people believe the chemical is used at such low levels that it is unlikely to cause harm. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) named TCE a human carcinogen in 2012. The chemical continues to be widely used, especially in the United States.
The ATSDR report indicates that exposure to TCE in drinking water could result in heart malformations, adult immunological effects and developmental immunotoxicity. It could also cause birth defects, such as fetal heart malformations and cardiac heart defects even if a pregnant woman is exposed for a short period of less than three weeks, the report warns.
A 2013 study linked TCE exposure to an increased risk of liver, cervical and kidney cancer.
Benzene Leukemia Risks
Benzene is an industrial chemical that has been associated with the development of several fatal forms of cancer, leukemia and other conditions, such as AML, Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL), Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (CLL), Hairy Cell Leukemia (HCL), Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDL), Myelofibrosis and Myeloid Metaplasia, Aplastic Anemia and Thrombocytopenic Purpura.
Heightened benzene levels released into the environment can cause a multitude of complications for those exposed to the chemical. Benzene is a chemical that is a colorless or light yellow liquid at room temperature and has a sweet odor that is highly flammable. Benzene evaporates into the air very quickly and its vapor is heavier than air causing it to sink into low-lying areas.
The chemical only dissolves slightly in water and will float on top of water causing a danger to drinking water, wildlife, and those who enter the water. People can be exposed to the chemical from leaks from underground storage tanks or from hazardous waste sites containing benzene can contaminate well water. People working in oil industries that make or use benzene may be exposed to the highest levels of it.
Long-term side effects of benzene exposure have been proven to cause anemia, which is a condition that develops when your blood lacks enough healthy red blood cells or hemoglobin. Essentially, the chemical causes bone marrow not to produce enough red blood cells, which can damage an individual’s immune system. The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that long term exposure to benzene can significantly impact the blood cells to the extent it causes cancer such as leukemia, a cancer of the blood-forming organs.
The ATSDR is accepting public comment on the draft report until September 30, 2018. Comments must be submitted in writing to ATSDRRecordsCenter@cdc.gov or through mail to:
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry
Attn: Records Center
Re: Former Wurtsmith Air Force Base (Oscoda, MI)
4770 Buford Highway, NE (MS F-09)
Atlanta, Georgia 30341