Problematic PR for Harmful Drinking Water

A booklet on past water contamination is at the center of a controversy at Marines Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. And, as the Miami Herald reports, “the dispute over the booklet is part of a larger ongoing public relations battle between the military and the [Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry].”

Specifically, there’s a question as to the need for telling people who were there between the 1950s and 1980s to look out for symptoms indicative of potential exposure to benzene, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene. The story says the Department of Veterans Affairs has linked some cancers to the poisoned water on an individual basis.

“Telling people that everything is OK, there may be some problems but we’re not sure, the PR … really is very harmful to the people who have been exposed to that drinking water,” said Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.)

Particularly controversial is a statement in it that states, “To date, the scientific community has not established an association between exposure to the contaminated water and health conditions reported by former residents of Camp Lejeune.”

The line is misleading, said Thomas Sinks, deputy director of ATSDR. While a Marines spokesperson said “getting answers” is their “top priority,” the story doesn’t specify when those answers are coming or how concerned residents and others should be. Communicating that message at this point would be a step in the direction of righting the situation.