Federal health officials are conducting a new study to determine whether veterans who were once stationed at a now-closed military base in California 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 Fort Ord’s drinking water contained toxic chemicals and that hundreds of veterans who lived at the California Central Coast base in the 1980s and 1990s those years of the last century, later developed rare and terminal cancers of the blood.
In a letter last Friday to Rep. Katie Porter, D-Calif., the director of the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Patrick Braise, wrote that “there is sufficient data and scientific reason for ATSDR to reassess the health risks associated with historical drinking water exposures at Fort Ord. Porter requested a new investigation in February, two days after the AP published its story.
The agency did not immediately respond to a request for additional details on the new study.
Army veteran Julie Aki, who lived in Fort Ord and was diagnosed in 2016 at age 46 with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer, said she is “confident that science will prove that our high rate of cancer and disease is not a coincidence. “
Akey started a Facebook group for Fort Ord veterans with cancer. Their number has grown to nearly 1,000.
In 1990, four years before the closure process began as an active military base, Fort Ord was added to the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of the nation’s most polluted sites. Included in this contamination are dozens of chemicals, some of which are already known to cause cancer, found in the base’s drinking water and soil.
An AP review of public records showed the Army knew the chemicals were being illegally dumped at Fort Ord for decades. Even after the infection was documented, the military downplayed the risks.
One of these chemicals was trichlorethylene, or TCE, which was known as a miracle degreaser and was widely used at Fort Ord. The Army found TCE in Fort Ord wells 43 separate times from 1985 to 1994, and 18 of those tests showed TCE exceeded legal safety limits.
The new health survey will update one conducted more than 25 years ago. ATSDR’s previous 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 living 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, especially TCE. Four years after the ATSDR 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 may have been 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 acceptable safe range” in areas that provide 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. Aki and others hope the new study will find a link between their cancers and their time at Fort Ord, allowing them to receive care and benefits.
Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta grew up near Fort Ord, received basic training at 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 as a result of their willingness to serve, I think we really owe it to them,” he said.