Further Study of Chemicals Expected

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Johns Hopkins University professor heading a review of the health hazards linked to World War I-era munitions in Spring Valley says more assessment of the Northwest neighborhood likely will be needed to determine whether the materials affected residents' well-being.

Thomas A. Burke, one of the directors of the Johns Hopkins Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute, briefed the restoration advisory board to the multimillion-dollar federal and local cleanup project Tuesday night. His team expects to complete the review in March but likely will recommend additional study.

Although the D.C. Council's original intent was a comprehensive study of residents' health, stemming from problems blamed on contamination on a former weapons-testing site there, the Hopkins team decided it had to embark first on a "scoping study" before drawing any conclusions. Burke likened much of the scoping work to "filling in the gaps," determining the extent of material used at the site, past and current exposure levels that would be a risk to human health, and the incidence and location of suspect diseases in the community.

Only then will the experts and officials know whether to proceed with a true health study, either through ongoing surveillance or an epidemiological survey, Burke said. Residents have long suggested a connection between the area's history and health concerns, including troubling numbers of unusual cancers, blood disorders and neurological ailments.

"There's really a lot more work to be done . . . to see if a health study is really appropriate," Burke said.

There is no question the American University Experiment Station used hazardous substances and compounds 90 years ago. After the war, the government left pits and trenches with the detritus of chemical warfare agents, which contaminated soil with arsenic and lead and possibly groundwater with perchlorate, a compound once used in tests with mustard agent.

Eighteen months ago, the D.C. Council authorized $250,000 for the review. Health Department officials contacted the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Burke, whose background includes top state health and environmental protection posts in New Jersey.

Work officially started in March with outreach to the community, tours through the area and interviews with dozens of people. "It's a tough challenge," Burke said.

The 661-acre site contains several embassies, about 1,200 houses and American University and Wesley Seminary. Excavation and cleanup has been underway in two phases since the first items were discovered in 1993, with soil removed from nearly five-dozen properties since 2002. That work is expected to last until 2009.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is heading the federal and local remediation effort, considers Spring Valley an extremely complex project because of the lack of documentation of material dumped there nearly a century ago and the extensive property changes and development that have taken place. The trenches and pits were covered over, ordnance rounds buried and forgotten.

Last month, soil where a glass fragment was unearthed between two halls on the AU campus tested positive for arsenic concentration of 106,000 parts per million -- the cleanup threshold is 20 -- and elevated levels of zinc, mercury and lead.

The corps will continue installing wells for groundwater monitoring this month. Though no community residents use groundwater for drinking, cooking or bathing, the concern is that any contamination could reach the Dalecarlia Reservoir that supplies drinking water to more than 1 million people in the Washington region. Officials continue to say the system's drinking water is safe.

Monitoring results from more than two-dozen wells installed since 2005 have been mixed, with one location near the reservoir showing an elevated level of perchlorate. The next round of well data is due before the end of the year, according to the corps.

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