Water contamination issues

Haunting question: Did I drink poison water?

Water contamination issues

First came the Reader’s Digest issue with a grim-sounding cover article: “How Safe Is Our Water?’’

“You need to read this,’’ my wife said, knowing my interest in health.

Then came a letter from a Marine general, encouraging me to participate in a health survey related to water contamination at Camp Lejeune, a sprawling Marine Corps base along the North Carolina coast.

I had been expecting the letter.

The United States has among the safest drinking water in the world. But Camp Lejeune — from 1957 to 1987 — was a different story. Toxic chemicals, including PCE (perchloroethylene), TCE (tricholoroethylene), benzene, and vinyl chloride contaminated the water system on the base during that period.

I worked at Camp Lejeune during part of that time.

I was a civilian employee on the base from 1976 to 1984, working as a teacher and coach in the schools for the children of Marines.

It was a great job, and I met and taught a lot of terrific kids, both in middle school and high school. I came to appreciate their parents’ sacrifice and commitment to their country.

I also drank a lot of water on the base. You don’t teach in a Southern classroom without air conditioning and not drink a lot of water. I used the water fountains often, as did my colleagues and, of course, the students.

Benzene and vinyl chloride are known cancer-causing chemicals, while PCE and TCE are each “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,’’ according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, the CDC agency that’s conducting the health survey.

Marines, their family members and civilian workers on the base during those years have reported birth defects, children’s leukemias, other cancers, and various ailments. Twenty Marines or sons of Marines who lived or were stationed at Lejeune reported male breast cancer, a rare disease for men, a 2009 CNN article said.

The concern has reached Congress and has prompted lawsuits. It’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of people may have been exposed to the polluted drinking water.

The Marine Corps says a scientific link to various cancers and other illnesses has yet to be proved, according to a St. Petersburg Times article. Yet North Carolina’s two U.S. senators, in a letter, have questioned the Corps’ reliance on a National Academy of Sciences report that downplays a possible link between the contamination and health effects.

I haven’t been able to determine if the water at the schools had the same problems as the contaminated water cited in certain areas of the base. But I’ve followed the Lejeune story over the years, wondering the obvious things.

Though I recently sprouted a skin cancer –- undoubtedly caused by sun exposure, and later removed — I don’t have any of those other health effects.

Chemical contamination such as occurred at Lejeune is rare, says Kyle Steenland, an epidemiologist at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health. Other cases include the drinking supply in Woburn, Mass., in the “Civil Action’’ situation, and the Erin Brockovich case in California, as well as a West Virginia case that Steenland is studying.

It’s difficult to determine chemical exposure at Camp Lejeune because ‘’very limited measurements were available back then on who was exposed and how much exposure . . . who drank what and from what source and how much got into the body,’’ Steenland says.

Meanwhile, our water systems have done a good job killing pathogens, or microbes that cause disease.

The Reader’s Digest article quotes Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, as saying that “building a good tap water system is how we got rid of cholera, typhoid and dysentery in the early 1900s.’’

Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, said in the article, “About 92 percent of Americans drink water that meets federal safety standards. Where we don’t meet the standards, we know what we have to do to get there.’’

America’s rivers and streams contain tiny traces of contraceptives, antidepressants, even livestock antibiotics, though an EPA scientist told Reader’s Digest that the concentration is generally so low as to not cause worry for humans.

Just this week, one of three recent U.S. deaths from a waterborne amoeba was linked to tap water. The other two cases were from swimming, though, and health experts stressed that the infection is extremely rare.

Regarding Georgia’s water, a recent report cited potential for pollution, though of a different kind.

An EPA report criticizing Georgia’s environmental oversight of large livestock farms has raised concerns about potential contamination of state waterways with chemicals from manure, the AJC reported.

I’m not by any means an expert on water quality, but I know enough to say it’s a resource that needs protecting.

Here are some CDC tips on drinking water safety.