Veterans and their families who lived at Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan may have found the cause for their cancer and other chronic illnesses – drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals, according to a report compiled by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).
ATSDR officials said the culprit is chemicals like the carcinogen benzene used in solvents and grease that eventually leached into the ground around Oscoda where the B52 bomber base was located.
As a result, children and adults who used the water could be at risk for “harmful non-cancer effects” including heart malformations, immunological effects and developmental immunotoxicity. People who drank water from wells on the property are also at increased risk of developing cancer. Employees exposed to benzene in the drinking water in one of the buildings on base could be at risk for cancer and other harmful effects.
The report was presented to Congress, which may consider legislation to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to extend health benefits to base veterans without them having to prove their illnesses are related to chemical exposure. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee says he is working on introducing such a bill.
Dangerous chemicals found in extremely high levels on the base include benzene and trichloroethylene, or TCE. Both chemicals are listed as human carcinogens. Benzene exposure has been linked to blood cancers, like acute myeloid leukemia (AML). TCE increases the risk for cancer of the kidney, liver and biliary passages, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and esophageal adenocarcinoma.
The base was active from 1923 to 1993. TCE was found in drinking water in Wurtsmith in 1977, but officials are unaware how long the wells on base were contaminated prior to the discovery. All wells on base were shut down in 1997, and the base switched to a municipal system that draws from Lake Huron. A groundwater treatment system was installed by the Air Force in the 1980s.
According to the ATSDR report, TCE levels in one well were more than 1,000 times over the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s limit for safe drinking water.
“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.”