Spring Valley residents still harbor health concerns despite new Hopkins study

December 11, 2011

Janet Bohlen inspects a faded 1918 photo of a dozen Army soldiers standing shoulder-deep in rugged trenches. The uniformed men aim their rifles at an unseen target behind American University.

“It looks like they’re right on the playing field, doesn’t it?” she says, sitting in her living room. “Wouldn’t you love to be able to identify exactly where that is now?”

From the other side of her coffee table, her husband, Buff, quips, “Don’t you recognize your own back yard?”

The Bohlens have lived in the Spring Valley section of Northwest Washington for 52 years, raising three children and now settling into retirement. Over the past two decades, the Army Corps of Engineers has excavated pockets of their wealthy, tree-lined neighborhood, which was built over the Army’s World War I chemical warfare testing grounds, to analyze possible contamination.

Now, Johns Hopkins University is about to embark on yet another health study in this neighborhood. The Bohlens are typical of families there who still wonder whether certain cancers and other serious health problems have been caused by the presence of buried toxic chemicals.

The new study, funded by the D.C. Health Department at the behest of D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), isn’t designed to address individual health issues. Instead, it will incorporate the corps’ most recent soil and water sampling measurements in an attempt to provide an updated community health portrait.

A 2007 Hopkins study found a lower-than-average occurrence of cancer in the neighborhood. But compared with the demographically similar Chevy Chase community, Spring Valley had more cases of arsenic-related conditions that affect the kidney, lungs, skin and bladder.

Citing a general lack of understanding about the long-term effects of chemical weapons exposure, the report suggested conducting another study later.

“What we want to do is follow up on the health outcomes that were raised in the [2007] scoping study, in addition to the arsenic-related cancers that we looked at last time,” Hopkins researcher Mary Fox said.

In the early 2000s, the Army Corps found the vestiges of a shed once filled with detonators under a 70-year-old tree in the Bohlens’ back yard, where Janet Bohlen said her daughter and neighborhood children would often play.

Her daughter had severe mercury poisoning years before the discoveries, but Janet said there is no way for her family to know whether the Army artifacts and that condition were related.

Janet has been treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a condition the 2007 study recognized as potentially arsenic-related.

“My cancer, as I say, is only one of many kinds of cancer, so you can’t really equate it with anything going on in that particular environmental issue,” she said.

Fox said the study won’t draw conclusions about the causes behind Spring Valley residents’ health issues. Residents will be able to fill out surveys about their health, but they will not be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

“It’s a community health study, as opposed to an individual health study,” Fox said.

A ‘domino effect’ of illness

Tall but fragile, Geza Teleki moves slowly around his Bethesda home, where he moved a few years ago with his wife, Heather, after raising their children in Spring Valley.

Before he retired, Teleki was a conservationist, once serving as director of national parks in Sierra Leone. He was in “excellent health,” he said, before he left Africa in the 1990s and returned to Spring Valley. Teleki then worked from his basement office as a lobbyist for the World Wildlife Fund.

Teleki, 67, said he has no idea how many pills he takes in a week. His laundry list of health issues includes hypertension, kidney failure and diabetes. He was in his early 60s when the problems unexpectedly started.

“I was not overweight, I didn’t eat junk food. I didn’t do any of the things that Americans usually do to make themselves ill,” he said. “This kind of just fell out of the sky.”

Teleki is convinced that toxins left over from the military’s use of the area caused his health issues.

“The first thing that happened was kidney failure. And then came the diabetes, instead of in the reverse order. And then came a whole series of other things. So it was a progression, like a domino effect, of things going wrong,” Teleki said.

His feet turned black, to the confusion of his doctors.

No on could understand what it was, he said. “As it turned out, the soldiers in World War I who had arsenic gas contamination — their feet turned black.”

His son Aidan spent many hours raising pet rats in their basement when he was a child. Aidan, now 16, is taking medication for thyroid problems, Teleki said.

“The thyroid is one of the most responsive organs to toxic contamination, so it’s usually the first to go. And now we have to worry, for years to come,” he said.

Teleki may have good reason to worry. The Army Corps had tested the soil around his Spring Valley house and given his residence a clean bill of health in 2003, but Teleki repeatedly questioned the assessment. He said he discovered a report by the corps that found more than 20 toxins and heavy metals on his property.

The corps responded through a spokesman that “there was no significant risk to Teleki’s home.” Teleki’s was one of more than 100 homes that ultimately had their soil cleaned up, said corps project manager Dan Noble.

But, Clem Gaines, the spokesman, said, “We should have done a better job of communicating with him.”

Skepticism of study

Teleki is skeptical about Johns Hopkins’s efforts.

“I don’t think there’s any point in doing the Johns Hopkins study unless it has a major component of tracking down people around the country,” he said. “If it does, you’ll have a much more accurate picture of the families who were affected.”

Johns Hopkins will not track down former Spring Valley residents, but they can fill out the online version of the health survey that will be mailed to residents, Fox said.

At a routine public meeting of local government representatives, Johns Hopkins researchers, residents and the corps in September, Spring Valley resident Lee Monsein echoed Teleki’s skepticism.

“Are you going to prove that arsenic caused these cancers, or disease, or hypertension? It’s not going to happen,” he said. “I want closure.”

Beth Resnick, outreach coordinator for the Hopkins study, said that despite residents’ concerns, they’ll never be able to prove whether the buried chemicals are causing residents’ health problems.

“It’s really not possible. There are so many factors that would go into it, and so much money and time involved,” she said. “What we want to do is inform them of their community health status, overall.”

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