Military, health agency in PR war over base's tainted water

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 31, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Congressional investigators will meet with Navy officials as soon as next week to pressure the military to reconsider a public relations booklet on past water contamination at Marines Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., that they say is misleading.

The booklet contains inaccurate information and could hurt scientists' efforts to survey thousands of former Lejeune residents and their family members about their health, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an arm of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Thomas Sinks, deputy director of ATSDR, asked the Marines Corps two weeks ago to retract the booklet and pull it off a military website dedicated to disseminating public information about the contamination.

"We request that the booklet be withdrawn from your website and distribution," Sinks wrote to Navy and Marine Corps officials in the Jan. 14 letter. His agency is charged with conducting ongoing scientific studies on the contamination and its health impacts.

Sinks also asked the Navy to coordinate all future public relations efforts with ATSDR, as spelled out in a draft memorandum of understanding between the two agencies.

The dispute over the booklet is part of a larger ongoing public relations battle between the military and ATSDR, and it could shape not only what former Lejeune residents learn about the contamination, but also whether — and how — those residents might eventually be compensated.

Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., who criticized the booklet last fall, praised ATSDR's action and said the Navy, which includes the Marine Corps, should pull the booklet.

"The agency that is supposed to assess environmental health risks has told the Navy, which is responsible for the contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune that what they are telling people exposed to the water is misleading," Miller said in an interview. "That should be a pretty big deal, and the Navy should take that pretty seriously."

As of late Monday the full-color booklet, titled, "Camp Lejeune Historic Drinking Water Questions and Answers," remained online.

Marines spokesman 1st Lt. Gregory A. Wolf said in an e-mail to McClatchy that the Corps is reviewing Sinks' letter and is preparing a written response to ATSDR.

"Our top priority remains getting answers for our former Marines and residents," Wolf said. "We also continue to work with Congress to keep them apprised of ongoing efforts regarding the Camp Lejeune historic drinking water issues."

The pamphlet also was delivered to members of Congress last summer and to thousands of Marine veterans and their family members across the country in recent months. Nearly 170,000 people have signed up for the online registry.

And it came under attack at a House investigative hearing in September, when ATSDR's director and a leading epidemiologist told Congress that some associations exist between certain diseases and the contamination.

Miller said aides from his office, along with aides from North Carolina Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan, are meeting with military staff as soon as next week to talk about improving transparency from the Navy.

As many as a million people are thought to have been exposed to benzene, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene that flowed through the drinking water at Camp Lejeune from the 1950s to the mid-1980s.

Many now suffer from a host of cancers and other diseases that they attribute to the contaminated water. The Department of Veterans Affairs has linked some cancers to the poisoned water on an individual basis.

At issue in particular is a statement in the booklet that reads, "To date, the scientific community has not established an association between exposure to the contaminated water and health conditions reported by former residents of Camp Lejeune."

"That sentence is misleading," Sinks wrote.

And without knowing the risks, Miller said, many former residents won't know to see a doctor at the first symptom of illness.

"Telling people that everything is okay, there may be some problems but we're not sure, the PR ... really is very harmful to the people who have been exposed to that drinking water," Miller said.

Among the ongoing studies are those that require surveys of former Lejeune residents about their health. Scientists, some lawmakers and advocates worry that the Marines' booklet will hurt responses.

"This booklet provides only the Marine Corps' view on our issue with no counterpoint," said Tallahassee, Fla., resident Mike Partain, a male breast cancer survivor who was born at Camp Lejeune, in an email to ATSDR in December. "I fear that this biased information will serve to undermine participation in the upcoming health studies for Camp Lejeune."

The booklet also cites a much disputed 2009 study by the National Research Council that, the booklet says, "concluded that adverse effects were unlikely, but could not be ruled out completely, and additional health studies are unlikely to provide more definitive results."

ATSDR Director Christopher Portier challenged that conclusion in a letter last fall to the Navy.

ON THE WEB

Department of Veterans Affairs information on Camp Lejeune water contamination

The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten: Camp Lejeune Toxic Water

Camp Lejeune Historic Drinking Water

About Camp Lejeune

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