The Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center concluded that environmental contamination in the Laurel Bay housing community for Marine families was an “unlikely” factor in several cases of cancer diagnosed in children who had lived at Laurel Bay, according to a health study released Tuesday evening.
The study also reported that Laurel Bay was not the site of a pediatric cancer cluster. The health center validated 15 cases of cancer in children who lived near Laurel Bay, the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, and the nearby Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island from 2002 to 2016.
Researchers identified two potential environmental risk factors: ionizing radiation and benzene. However, the report asserted that “it is not likely an individual would be exposed” to excess radiation. It also stated, “there is not a complete exposure pathway of concern for benzene” in the areas of concern.
In 1999, authorities at Laurel Bay found buried oil tanks that had been used to heat homes beginning when the housing development was built in the 1950s. Different government documents give various dates when management switched to natural gas heating, but the health study puts the date sometime in the mid-1980s. Some of those oil tanks had corrosion and holes, with benzene leaking into the ground.
The report stated that, although parts of the soil and groundwater in Laurel Bay had been contaminated by leaking oil tanks, no exposure pathways had been identified in indoor air “to date.” However, testing to address health concerns and the potential connection to the oil tanks is “ongoing.” Laurel Bay does not use groundwater but is serviced by the Beaufort-Jasper Water and Sewer Authority.
Officials said all known heating oil storage tanks were removed from 2007 to 2015. About 1,200 oil tanks were removed, although earlier government documents estimated that 1,400 storage tanks were underground.
The study identified five types of cancers, including acute lymphocytic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, neuroblastoma, soft issue sarcoma and Wilms tumor. Three of those five cancer types had known risk factors from the environment.
“All cancer cases were consistent with normal pediatric cancer type distribution for the same types of cancers in the general pediatric population,” the report stated.
Laurel Bay became the topic of national news in January when Amanda Whatley, a mother who had previously lived in the housing community, posted a YouTube video about her daughter’s leukemia. She questioned whether her daughter’s cancer was connected to the contamination.
In the description the video, Whatley said she had heard about 13 children and 20 adults who’d lived at Laurel Bay and had been diagnosed with cancer.
“(If I’d) had in the back of my mind that cancer was happening to children who lived where we lived, I would have taken her (Whatley’s daughter) to the doctor so much sooner,” Whatley said in the YouTube video. It would have “spared her a lot of pain and suffering, and a very unclear future.”
In addition, other Laurel Bay parents have shared worries on social media about other ailments, including endocrine and blood disorders.
The Marine Corps instructed the public health center to conduct the study in June 2015, according to the report. Officials originally said the study was expected to be released last spring, although it wasn’t published until several months later.
Researchers conducted the study in two steps: an epidemiological investigation, and an environmental and workplace exposure pathway investigation. The report noted over 1,000 documents were reviewed, including medical records data, to evaluate whether there could be a relationship between the contamination and the cases of childhood cancer.
Last month, 11 former Laurel Bay residents filed a lawsuit in Beaufort County Circuit Court alleging that they and likely thousands of other current and former residents were not warned of the serious environmental contamination, and are owed back damages.
The suit also alleges that the private companies managing Laurel Bay were aware of the contamination but failed to adequately warn residents.
The Marine Corps indicated representatives would wait until next week at an open house to answer questions from the press and the public. Officials have not yet released details about the open house date and time.
The entire report can be found here, and a two-page summary of the report can be found here.
Kasia Kovacs: 843-706-8139, @kasiakovacs
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