Enduring War and 'Witch's Brew of Toxic Chemicals'

Photo: Military chemical exposuresABC News Photo Illustration

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.

Toxic Tap Water at Camp Lejeune

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."

Now, Partain and 40 other men who drank the water on the base have since been diagnosed with the rare form of male breast cancer ? a condition many attribute to the toxins they consumed at Lejeune.

"We'd like to see full disclosures of what happened at the base," Partain told members of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs. He is also asking the government to fund further studies correlating breast cancer with the toxic water and ensure medical care or compensation for the victims. "Where's the common sense?" he asked.

Major General Eugene Payne, who oversees Marine Corps facilities, told the Senate panel today that "the studies have not determined an association between exposure and medical conditions" suffered by those at Lejeune.

The Marine Corps maintains that "once the source of the chemicals was determined to be the wells, the wells were immediately taken out of service." The Marine Corps also now states that "taking care of Marines, sailors, their families and civilian workers is our top priority."

In 1997, a federal study on the Lejeune incident said Marines and their families faced little or no increased cancer risk from drinking and bathing in chemical-tainted water at the camp. That report was withdrawn in April after federal health officials found omissions and scientific inaccuracy in the study.

"We can no longer stand behind the accuracy of the information in that document, specifically in the drinking water public health evaluation," William Cibulas, director of health assessment for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said in April. "We know too much now."

As many as 1 million people may have been exposed to water toxins over 30 years before the bad wells were closed in 1987, health officials now say. The Marines estimated the number at 500,000.

Orange Dust Clouds and Toxic Burn Pits in Iraq

Lawmakers also heard emotional testimony Thursday from veterans and survivors of U.S. service members who faced exposure to toxins during tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stacy Pennington, the sister of Iraq war veteran Steven Ochs who died in 2008 from cancer, said a military burn pit in Balad, Iraq, was a "ticking time bomb" for her brother.

The pits are used to dispose of medical waste, fuel, plastic, discarded vehicles, trash and ammunition.

Pennington said her brother and other veterans from Balad, just north of Baghdad, complained of colds, headaches, sinus problems and other ailments presumably due to chemical exposure.

Dr. Robert Miller, a pulmonary and critical care expert at Vanderbilt University, told lawmakers sulfur dioxide plumes from the burn pits pose a "potent lung toxin and will create lung injury."

Ochs was diagnosed with Acute Myueloid Leukemia (AML) upon returning from Iraq in 2007 and died several months later. Doctors said they believed condition was chemically induced but could not definitively prove it, Pennington said.

In a separate incident near Basra in southern Iraq, former Army Staff Sergeant and medic Russell Powell inhaled clouds of orange colored dust that blew throughout the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant when he arrived there in 2003.

"The orange dust was located in large bags that were ripped open" and was so widespread, Powell recalled, that "at times there were at least two inches of dust on my boots."

The substance later identified as sodium dichromate is regarded by the EPA as highly carcinogenic to humans. Frequent dust storms would pick up the chemical and create a toxic breathing environment for the troops.

"We would have severe nose bleeds, coughing up blood, a hard time breathing, nausea, and a burning sensation in the lungs and throat," Powell said. "After a few weeks of being at the facility, several personnel began getting lesions on their hands, arms, faces and nostril area."

Since returning from Iraq in 2004, Powell says he's faced difficulty getting treatment for persisting symptoms at a West Virginia VA Hospital because doctors "know little about sodium dichromate and the affects of it on the human body."

West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller said he is pursuing the matter with the Department of Veterans' Affairs. "There's a lack of thoroughness, a lack of concern, a lack of care," he said. "[The Army] chose not to warn about it or clean it up."

Rockefeller said he received a letter from Secretary of Veterans' Affiars Eric Shinseki, who promised a "complete exposure assessment and testing every year and every five years" for victims.

Thirty members of the West Virginia National Guard are suing defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root, which was conducting repairs at Qarmat Ali, alleging the group was responsible for the chemical dust bags. KBR said in August that it wasn't responsible for the sodium dichromate at the site.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.