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Preliminary tests detect petroleum product in Navy water system, Hawaiʻi health officials say

Zoe Dym
A sign alerting military residents of water issues on Dec. 2, 2021.

Preliminary testing shows the presence of petroleum product in a water sample from Red Hill Elementary, Hawaiʻi health officials said Wednesday.

Hundreds of military families living near Pearl Harbor - Hickam have reported fuel-like or chemical odors from the Navy's water system amid concerns it may have been contaminated by a fuel leak. Some said they suffered from stomach pain and headaches.

The sample was analyzed at a University of Hawaiʻi lab but it's not yet clear what type of petroleum was in the water. Samples were sent to California for further analysis, Department of Health Deputy Director for Environmental Health Kathleen Ho said.

Red Hill Elementary and Nimitz Elementary taped off their sinks, handed out bottled water, and prepared lunches without using water, the Hawaiʻi Department of Education said.

The health department recommends all Navy water system users — some 93,000 people — should avoid using the water for drinking, cooking, or oral hygiene. Those who detect a fuel-like odor from their water should further avoid using the water for bathing, dishwashing, or laundry.

Neither the Navy nor the state has identified where the fuel or fuel odor is coming from. They are investigating.

State Toxicologist Diane Felton said petroleum exposure can cause the physical ailments some residents have reported. Felton said certain symptoms are universal to petroleum exposure.

"Whether it’s gasoline or kerosene or jet fuel or motor oil – no matter what it might be across the class, petroleum-based hydrocarbons tend to have a set of symptoms that can happen when they are ingested," Felton said.

Symptoms can include stomach pains, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Felton said other symptoms include rashes, dizziness, and headaches. Symptoms should resolve themselves fairly quickly if the exposure is stopped, but they need to know what kind of product is present before determining its toxicity.

The Navy said water distribution sites have been set up at Halsey Terrace Community Center, the NEX parking lot - Moanalua Terrace, Catlin Park Community Center, and Ohana Nui - Hickam Makai Rec Center, and more.

The Navy said its engineers inspected water storage tanks, wells and distribution lines for contaminants. It also flushed distribution lines associated with housing communities that have reported contamination.

It's also asking residents in military housing to run the water in their homes for three to five minutes to help move water through the system and possibly alleviate the odor.

When reports first came in over the weekend, the Navy initially said there was no "immediate indication" that the water was unsafe. The military later recommended residents avoid ingestion of their potable water as a cautionary measure "if chemical or petroleum odors are present."

The Honolulu Board of Water Supply said it is increasing testing of its water sources in the area of Red Hill as a cautionary measure. BWS said its water system is entirely separate from the Navy and it is not receiving similar complaints.

Military housing residents with concerns can call the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam Emergency Operations Center at (808) 448-2570, (808) 448-3262, or (808) 448-2583.

This is a developing story.

Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Scott Kim was a news editor at Hawaiʻi Public Radio.
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