Times Staff Writer
Tampa Bay residents who lived at Camp Lejeune, N.C., between 1972 and 1986 will receive a health survey by Friday as scientists research whether the base's polluted water harmed their health.
About 250,000 former residents of the Marine Corps base in every U.S. state are getting the mailing from the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, ATSDR officials say.
The survey is one of the largest of its type ever conducted and includes about 14,000 Floridians — 2,816 of those from the Tampa Bay area. ATSDR says the work may help direct future research.
But the survey, which must be returned to ATSDR by Christmas, comes amid controversy as critics accuse the Marine Corps and its Navy overseers of trying to quash participation. The Corps denies the charge.
"The Marine Corps fully supports ATSDR's work on the health survey and strongly encourages participation," said Capt. Kendra Hardesty, a Corps spokeswoman. "The more surveys that are filled out and returned, the more likely the results will be useful."
In separate mailings in the last two years, the Corps has referred former residents of Lejeune to a 2009 report by the National Research Council. The NRC is related to the National Academies, which advises the government on scientific matters.
One conclusion of the report is that the question of linking illness to any of Camp Lejeune's contaminants "cannot be answered definitively with further scientific study."
The report was sponsored by the Navy.
"We're moving forward with the survey, so we obviously disagree," said Christopher Portier, ATSDR's director. "They did not have all the exposure information we now have ... in terms of the magnitude of exposure."
Critics of the Corps, and some scientists, have raised questions about the completeness of the NRC report. Jennifer Walsh, a spokesperson for the National Academies of Sciences, said, "We stand by our report."
The NRC report contains no mention of the only two tests showing high levels of the carcinogen benzene in a working water well and in tap water at the base in the mid-1980s. Benzene is a component of fuel.
A sample from the well in July 1984 contained 380 parts per billion benzene, far above the level considered safe by federal scientists. A tap water sample in 1985 recorded 2,500 ppb benzene. The Corps says the second result was a testing error.
Why these two tests are not in the report is unclear. The NRC had access to both results.
"The water sampling data were extremely limited no matter how you look at it," said Lianne Sheppard, a statistician and professor at the University of Washington who served on the NRC panel that produced the report. "Two additional samples that appear to have been missed might be unfortunate from a completeness point of view ... but would not have meaningfully changed the conclusions."
The NRC report also was published before it was widely known that up to 1.1 million gallons of gasoline were spilled at Lejeune's fuel depot.
A point of contention between the Corps and its critics is that the NRC report assessed benzene, which critics say it did not. "Now the Corps is using the NRC to create doubt," said Jerry Ensminger, a leading advocate for Lejeune veterans.
David Savitz, chair of the NRC panel that wrote the report, acknowledged it paid far less attention to benzene than other chemicals.
"We did summarize the known health effects of benzene, but very briefly because they are well known," said David Savitz, a researcher at Brown University who chaired the NRC committee.
Richard Clapp, a professor emeritus of environmental health at Boston University who has worked on Lejeune pollution issues, was one of three peer reviewers of the NRC's report.
Clapp said he thought the NRC was too dismissive of the water modeling work being done by ATSDR that attempts to reconstruct contaminant levels through Lejeune's history.
But Clapp said the NRC ignored his comments, and the final report was not changed.
"Some panel members thought they were doing (Camp Lejeune) residents a favor by saying it would be a waste of time trying to nail down" whether polluted water caused disease.
He said members of the NRC panel thought this conclusion would speed government compensation to victims by avoiding years of additional study.
"That was sort of politically naive," Clapp said.
Reach William R. Levesque at email@example.com or (813) 226-3432.