When Laurie Paganelli and her son Jordan, 5, moved to the U.S. Naval Air facility at Atsugi, Japan, in 1997, they felt safe -- free from the dangers of the front lines of war.
Little did they know, Paganelli says, a silent killer was lurking above the base, putting the health and safety of her family at risk: A giant plume of toxic smoke, drifting from a nearby Japanese incinerator, floated through the homes where U.S. military families lived and the schoolyards where children, including Jordan, played, experts say.
In 1990, a U.S. Department of the Navy document reportedly called the cloud a "witch's brew of toxic chemicals."
"It smelled, burned your eyes, and sometimes added a greenish glow to the air around us," Pagnelli told the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs today. "We certainly were not aware of the effects it would have on our family years later."
On Jan. 11, 2008, doctors diagnosed Jordan, then 16, with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, Alveolar Rhabdo-Myo-Sarcoma (ARMS). Paganelli and several doctors believe Jordan's exposure to the Atsugi incinerator's toxic plume is at least partly to blame for the disease.
Independent analyses, however, have not been able to confirm the source of the illnesses or establish a clear connection between the incinerator and the disease.
Paganelli and others exposed to similar chemicals during their military service are asking Congress to fund further scientific research about the incidents, press the military to be more forthcoming about details of the exposures, and guarantee medical care for all exposed, even though some might not have served long enough to be eligible for medical benefits or received a diagnosis to ensure care.
"Although the Navy had no control over the emissions, they did have the ability to avoid exposing thousands of children to toxic chemicals," Paganelli told senators.
The Shinkampo Incinerator Complex was known to release volatile organic compounds, poly-chlorinated biphenyls, pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydro-carbons, dioxins, furans, particulates and heavy metals into the air. Dioxin is also a key toxin in Agent Orange, a defoliant widely used by the U.S. military in Vietnam.
The Department of the Navy warned Atsugi residents of the risks of the incinerator in 1997 and instructed people to stay indoors when the plume blew toward the base. In 2001, the incinerator was closed.
Since that time, at least 61 cases of cancer from former residents -- many children -- have emerged, along with occurrences of other toxic-related disorders.
"We trusted the Navy to provide a safe environment for our family members. But they failed to do so by knowingly housing our families in a toxic waste zone," Paganelli said.
When Michael Partain, 41, was still inside his mother's womb, he and his family were unknowingly exposed to high levels of toxins found in the water wells of Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina, where they lived.
The contaminants -- tetrachloroethylene (PCE), trichloroethylene (TCE), dichloroethylene (DCE), benzene and vinyl chloride -- were all subsequently discovered in Lejeune's tap water in 1980.
But Camp Lejeune officials didn't shut down the contaminated wells until almost two years later, in 1985, when they finally notified Marine families that "chemicals had been detected in the water."