For about a week, Navy wife Adrianna and her five children had been experiencing unexplained headaches, nausea, stomach pain, mouth sores, throat and eye irritation, exhaustion and irritability. Her 14-month-old twins had diarrhea.
Then Nov. 28, they smelled fuel in their water in their house on Aliamanu Military Reservation in Hawaii, and she called poison control, and started to make a connection with her family’s symptoms.
Poison control advised her not to use the water for drinking, cooking, washing dishes. Since she started using bottled water for drinking, their symptoms have improved some, said Adrianna, who asked that her last name not be used because of concerns about consequences to her Navy husband’s career.
Adrianna conducted her own straw poll for housing residents this week, asking about symptoms experienced in the previous week, and found that 116 people reported headaches, 70 reported stomach pain, and 34 experienced unexplained rashes, among other symptoms.
Alicia Contreras, who also lives at Aliamanu, said her 3-month-old premature twin babies have had diarrhea, and they’ve been spitting up. She’s had headaches and stomach issues. “I am angry, extremely stressed, and very worried,” she said.
She contends it’s related to the oily film on the water that comes out of their tap. She provided a video showing her putting a lighter to the water in a cup from her faucet, and although the water didn’t catch on fire, the fire “attached” to the water, she said, and left a hole in the oily film.
Contreras and Adrianna are among a number of residents of Hawaii military housing areas with Navy-supplied water who are wondering where the fuel smell in their water is coming from, and are fearful about how it’s already affected their health, after drinking and using the water. Families were frustrated by the lack of communication from military and housing officials about possible water issues, and conflicting information they were receiving.
The Navy’s initial testing didn’t show petroleum contaminants, but they’re conducting further tests. Meanwhile, the Navy and Army are providing potable water for residents at various locations; they’re providing more information through town halls, Facebook posts and other communication. Residents concerned about their water quality can also shower at certain fitness centers, pools, and gyms on base, according to the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Facebook page.
Residents are concerned that their water is being contaminated by another fuel and water spill near the Red Hill facility, which happened sometime over the weekend of Nov. 20 and Nov. 21.
“Both the Army and Navy knew that the oil leak had occurred over a week ago and it could impact drinking water, but didn’t notify residents,” Contreras said.
“We’d been drinking the water…. The military and housing officials weren’t telling people anything,” Adrianna said. “There was never an email until everyone started going into a panic” after they started smelling the fuel, said Adrianna.
Aliamanu, which is part of Army Garrison Hawaii, gets its water supply from the Navy. It’s one of several military housing areas where residents have complained to the Hawaii Department of Health about the smell of fuel in their water this week. The Navy is conducting further testing, but initial results didn’t show petroleum contaminants, officials said. Results of those tests are expected later in the week. But if residents smell chemical or petroleum odors in their water, officials stated, they recommend “avoiding ingestion as a cautionary measure.”
Hawaii Department of Health officials went further in their cautions, advising all Navy water system users to avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene, in a post on their website Tuesday. And, they added, “Navy water system users who detect a fuel odor from their water should avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, bathing, dishwashing, laundry or oral hygiene.”
Hawaii Department of Health officials stated they’ve had numerous complaints about the odor from consumers of the Navy’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam water system, including Aliamanu Military Reservation, Red Hill and Nimitz elementary schools, and military housing.
“The Army is telling us to contact maintenance for housing, and maintenance said to contact the Navy. …. Everyone responsible is passing the buck, while families like mine are having serious health issues,” Contreras said in an interview with Military Times Tuesday.
The Navy held town hall meetings with residents in affected communities Tuesday night; Army officials announced a town hall meeting scheduled for Wednesday evening at Aliamanu Military Reservation to discuss the ongoing water issue. Residents can get potable water in the parking lot at the child development center at Aliamanu, from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. until further notice, Army officials announced. Monday and Tuesday, military families were paying out of pocket for water that’s safe to use — and they were starting to see some stores, such as a nearby Target, running out of bottled water.
The Navy has set up an Information Call Center to take calls from housing residents: (808) 448-2570, (808) 448-3262, and (808) 448-2583. As of late Tuesday, about 200 residents have called the line for testing, and known affected neighborhoods are currently Catlin Park, Halsey Terrace, Radford Terrace, Doris Miller, Moanalua Terrace, and Ohana Nui, Navy officials stated.
So far, the Navy’s tests haven’t detected petroleum contaminants in initial testing, Navy officials stated in a press release Tuesday afternoon. “More stringent tests are being conducted by qualified independent water testing labs on the mainland to ensure water purity meets EPA standards. Results are expected later this week.”
It’s the Navy’s responsibility to maintain a safe, reliable source of drinking water to its customers, and to provide alternative sources of drinking water for human consumption as deemed necessary,” Hawaii Department of Health officials stated on their website.
According to the Navy press release, Navy engineers visited homes of military families who reported the odor, and collected samples. They also collected and tested samples from other locations in the water distribution system. Navy engineers inspected water storage tanks, wells and distribution lines and flushed distribution lines associated with housing communities reporting contamination of their water supply.
“The Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam commander sent an update to military housing residents Monday reinforcing the Navy’s commitment to keeping the water safe,” the release stated. “He also provided a phone number for individuals to call who have concerns about their water.”
Contreras said since she’s started using bottled water and distilled water for her babies’ formula —instead of filtered water from their refrigerator— “they seem to be okay,” she said.
She’ll be giving her babies limited baths in bottled water. She and her husband are considering upgrading his gym membership off base so she’ll have a place to shower.
“I hope they figure this out soon, for the sake of service members and their families,” Contreras said. “They work so hard, and to have to come home, and not have a really safe place to deal with basic needs… the lack of that is just awful.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.