Spring Valley Gets Good Checkup

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007

A year-long review of health issues stemming from World War I-era munitions in Spring Valley reports that the community's general health is "very good," with no relationship yet determined between cancer cases and the hazardous substances and compounds dumped there almost a century ago.

The review, by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Public Health, looked at cancer incidence and mortality rates in the Northwest community from 1994 to 2004 and found nearly all to be significantly below national statistics. It identified "no spatial association" between cases from that period and areas with contamination.

"This should be very reassuring," said study leader Thomas A. Burke, director of the Johns Hopkins Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute.

The Hopkins team, however, recommended further investigation of some concerns and continued environmental tracking.

Ever since vestiges of the American University Experiment Station were first unearthed in 1993 -- the discovery of an artillery round triggered a massive excavation and cleanup of the former weapons-testing site -- Spring Valley residents have questioned the impact on their health. Anecdotal reports of unusual malignancies and recurrent disorders raised alarm.

In spring 2005, the D.C. Council agreed to spend $250,000 on a study. The researchers began their work in March 2006, making multiple site visits and meeting with more than 40 people. Their findings recently were presented to the community advisory board involved with three federal and city agencies on the overall project.

Multicolored bar charts illustrating the results show how much better off Spring Valley is than the nation as a whole. Its frequency of lymphomas and cancers of the bladder, liver and lung was far less than the U.S. rate. Some incidence rates exceeded those in the Chevy Chase neighborhood, which was used for comparison, but not by much.

"I was actually very pleased with the report," Gregory Beumel, the advisory board's community co-chairman, said this week. "It's nice to know we are so healthy."

Still, the Hopkins team recommended examining cancer data from additional years, as well as the numbers of potentially related issues such as blood disorders, neurological problems and kidney disease. Looking back has inherent limitations because key health records weren't kept before a certain point and many people have moved in and out of the community over the decades.

Of particular interest are the "very slight but consistent differences" from Chevy Chase of four cancers that can be caused by exposure to arsenic, the element found in elevated levels in more than 10 percent of Spring Valley yards. "Is this a short-term variability or a consistent trend?" Burke asked.

A spokeswoman for the city Health Department said officials are reviewing the final report.

"I hope . . . the District will really fund the next steps," said Alma Gates, who has followed the issues as a member of Advisory Neighborhood Commission 3D. "I want the District to play a role here and be proactive."

During the testing site's heyday, a plethora of chemicals and poison compounds was used in conjunction with dangerous mustard agents and screening smokes. Cleaning up the detritus has cost millions to date and continues on several fronts.

Last month, crews finished removing arsenic-contaminated soil from the yards of two houses -- bringing to 61 the number of properties to have undergone soil replacement. And this summer, excavation will resume at the last of four ordnance-disposal pits.

By summer's end, the schedule calls for another round of sampling at wells that were installed because of concerns over contamination of groundwater by perchlorate, a toxin found in chemical weapons and explosives.

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