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CDC to conduct health study at contaminated former Army base

Federal health officials are conducting a new study to determine whether veterans once stationed at a now-closed California military base were exposed to dangerously high levels of cancer-causing toxins.

The decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention comes nine months after an Associated Press investigation found that drinking water at Fort Ord contained toxic chemicals and that hundreds of veterans who lived at the central California coastal base in the 1980s and 1990s later rare and terminal blood cancer.

In a letter last Friday to Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., wrote the director of the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Patrick Breysse, that “there is sufficient data and scientific reason for ATSDR to reevaluate health risks associated with historical drinking water exposures at Fort Ord.” ” Porter asked for a new study in February, two days after the AP published its story.

The agency did not immediately respond to a request seeking further details about the new study.

Army veteran Julie Akey, who lived at Fort Ord and was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, in 2016 at age 46, said she is “confident that science will prove that our high rates of cancers and diseases are not is no coincidence.”

Akey started a Facebook group for Fort Ord veterans with cancer. The number grew to nearly 1,000.

In 1990, four years before it began the process of closing as an active military base, Fort Ord was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the most polluted places in the country. Included in that contamination were dozens of chemicals, some now known to cause cancer, found in the base’s drinking water and soil.

The AP’s review of public documents showed the Army knew chemicals were improperly dumped at Fort Ord for decades. Even after the contamination was documented, the military downplayed the risks.

One of those chemicals was trichlorethylene, or TCE, which was known as a miracle degreaser and was widely used at Fort Ord. The military found TCE in Fort Ord’s wells 43 separate times from 1985 to 1994, and 18 of those tests showed TCE exceeded legal safety limits.

The new health study will update one that was done more than 25 years ago. The previous ATSDR public health study, published in 1996, found that toxins in the soil and in the aquifers below Fort Ord are unlikely to pose a past, present or future threat to those who live there.

But that conclusion was based on limited data provided by the military and before medical science understood the link between some of the chemical exposures and cancer, particularly TCE. Four years after the ATSDR’s assessment, in 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services added TCE to its list of chemicals known to cause cancer.

It is unclear how long and at what concentrations TCE was in the water before 1985, when hundreds of thousands of people lived on the base. And TCE wasn’t the only problem. The EPA has identified more than 40 “chemicals of concern” in soil and groundwater.

The Department of Veterans Affairs told the AP earlier this year that the contamination was “within the allowable safe range” in areas that provided drinking water.

Veterans who lived at Fort Ord and have since tried to get medical care or disability benefits through the VA based on their cancers have been repeatedly denied. Akey and others hope the new study will find a connection between their cancers and their time at Fort Ord, so they can get care and benefits.

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta grew up next to Fort Ord, went through basic training on the base and now runs a nonprofit institute there. He said a new health study is an important next step for veterans.

“They were willing to serve their country and put their lives on the line, and because of their willingness to serve, I think we really owe it to them,” he said.

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