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Cancer Stalks a 'Toxic Triangle'

Scientists disagree about the risks of TCE. But residents near a former air base are dead certain.
By Ralph Vartabedian, Times Staff Writer
March 30, 2006

SAN ANTONIO — On nearly every block surrounding the former Kelly Air Force Base, small purple crosses sprout from front lawns, marking the homes where cancer has struck.

The residents call their neighborhood the "toxic triangle," alleging that the Air Force poisoned it with an industrial solvent, trichloroethylene, or TCE. It was casually dumped at the base for decades and spread for miles through a shallow aquifer under 22,000 nearby houses.

Texas health authorities have found elevated rates of liver cancer among residents, as well as higher-than-normal rates of birth defects. Though state health officials say it is impossible to prove that TCE causes the sickness here, this blue-collar community has little doubt about the connection.

"We are dying day by day," said Robert Alvarado Sr., who has lived in a small clapboard home for 36 years that sits about 14 feet over the TCE plume. "I have kidney failure, my wife has thyroid cancer, my neighbor just died of breast cancer."

What's happening in this neighborhood of modest low-slung homes, crisscrossed by railroad tracks and dominated by aircraft hangars on the horizon, has been playing out for years at other cities that are home to military bases, industrial plants, nuclear weapons laboratories and NASA centers.

Hundreds of communities with major TCE contamination have waited more than a decade for scientists to explain the cancer risks created by exposure to TCE. The clear solvent used to take grease off metal parts is officially branded as a probable carcinogen by half a dozen state, federal and international agencies. It is most often linked to liver and kidney cancer, as well as birth defects and childhood leukemia.

But scientists representing major polluters, particularly the Department of Defense, have successfully delayed action on scientific assessments that TCE is a far graver threat to public health than recognized by federal standards. When the Environmental Protection Agency drafted a TCE assessment in 2001, finding that it was far more toxic than originally believed, the issue was wrested from the EPA's control.

A panel of elite scientists organized by the National Academy of Sciences will issue a report this summer that is supposed to shape government policy on TCE. The report is all but certain to intensify the battle — no matter what it says.

If the academy endorses the view that TCE is a big risk, it would lay the groundwork for stricter cleanup standards across the nation and probably lower permissible levels of TCE in the environment. If it rejects the EPA's earlier research, it will trigger a political rebellion by exposed communities.

"If the national academy comes out with some kind of a weaker standard, it is going to ignite this all over again," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who has fought regulatory delays along with other Democrats and Republicans in Congress. "We are headed for a battle."

The national academy has been working on its report for more than a year and is now as much as six months behind schedule. One member of the group, Harvard University professor Thomas J. Smith, said the group was dealing with many missing pieces of a difficult puzzle and many bits of data that don't seem to fit anywhere. "It is a complicated picture," Smith said.

Even after the national academy issues its report, the matter will go back to the EPA for another risk assessment that could take another two years. Any further regulatory action to reduce public exposure to TCE could take several more years. The EPA first began amassing scientific data in the mid-1990s and began assessing the risks in 1997.

It is a pace that has left TCE exposure victims disheartened and angry.

Anne Elizabeth Townsend died a month ago in Moscow, Idaho, the result of liver disease and TCE exposure, according to her death certificate and a liver biopsy.

She was married to Tom Townsend, a former major in the Marine Corps who was based at highly polluted Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, after returning seriously injured from combat duty in Vietnam in 1965.

The Townsends lived at the Paradise Point housing complex, which was served by a base water-supply system that carried 1,400 parts per billion of TCE, a later investigation by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry would disclose.

The current EPA limit on TCE in drinking water is 5 ppb. The standard might have dropped to 1 ppb had the risk assessment conducted by the EPA in 2001 been adopted, experts say.

In 1967, the Townsends had a son born with cardiovascular birth defects. He lived only three months.

"We had an autopsy done and there wasn't a system in his body that wasn't screwed up," said Townsend, a retired college administrator and a former city councilman. "That autopsy report had 10 pages of findings. It was a mercy that he didn't last.

"They wiped out two members of my family," Townsend, 75, added. "I am proud that I served in the Marines, but there are some days I want to forget that I did."

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(Alicia Wagner Calzada / For The Times)

(Alicia Wagner Calzada / For The Times)

Contamination area
March 30, 2006

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