Naval base employees concerned about their health in the wake of tainted water issues

by Laura McCrystal and Justine McDaniel, originally posted on June 19, 2016


As lawmakers demanded answers this spring about water contamination in Bucks and Montgomery Counties, Paul Lutz began chemotherapy.

Lutz does not live in the area with the tainted drinking water, which came from chemicals used on naval air bases. But he worked at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station as a flight engineer. Now 44 and retired from the military, he has multiple myeloma.

As water contamination near the base attracts scrutiny, Lutz and others who worked there wonder: What about us?

“I spent 20 years fighting for lives,” said Lutz, of Lehigh County. “Now I’m fighting for my own.”

Lutz is among many who have cancers not linked to the chemicals that polluted water. But studies suggest that those cancers could be connected to other toxics used at the bases in Horsham and Warminster.

A list of illnesses that one former employee is compiling from veterans, civilians, and widowed spouses is at 120 people, most with cancers.

“I’m going to keep fighting for everybody that worked there,” said Valerie Seacrease, who worked in IT at the Willow Grove base for 25 years. “I’m hoping that somebody will say, These people need to be taken care of, too.”

Lutz, Seacrease, and others are reaching out to lawyers. They also want to be included if blood testing is offered to residents with tainted drinking water.

Hundreds of veterans have connected on Facebook and hope to find more. Dana Berman, who was stationed at Willow Grove in the 1990s and now lives in Maryland, worked on aircraft equipment. He had a tumor on his appendix in 2012.

“I worked with cleaners,” Berman said, “with no rubber gloves or nothing. It used to burn up your hands.”

Now, he gets regular screenings for cancer.

“I have to attribute anything that my body has within me now is from my time in the Navy,” he said.

Local Navy officials have said health issues are not in their purview.

“We encourage anybody who has any concerns to contact their health professionals,” said Gregory C. Preston, a Base Closure and Realignment Commission director here who mans the Navy’s response to drinking-water issues.

Veterans have fond memories of the bases. But with more information about the chemicals used and a growing list of comrades sick or dead, they now have strong worries.

When Seacrease was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in 1996, she wasn’t the only one in her office with cancer. The base chaplain sent her and another woman to meet a flight surgeon, she said.

“He waved his hand in front of us,” Seacrease recalled, “and said, ‘There’s nothing on this base that’s causing you cancer.’ ”

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