US Army major Amanda Feindt has back pain so severe, she cannot walk on her own.
“I have [also] been urinating blood, and [have] oddly super low blood pressure,” Amanda said from her hospital bed at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, earlier this month.
“Doctors have run extensive blood and urine tests, I’ve had an ultrasound, cat scan and MRI.
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“All came back mostly normal. They believe this is related to my kidneys, but have yet to be able to prove it.”
Amanda’s numerous serious health issues began after she drank water contaminated with jet fuel – which leaked into the US Navy’s drinking water supply.
The leak – of 64,000 litres of the JP-5 jet fuel-water mixture – occurred on the Hawaiian island of Oahu in late November 2021.
Amanda is just one of 93,000 military members who, along with their families, have been impacted since the leak – which came from WWII-era fuel tanks at the Red Hill Underground Fuel Storage Facility.
Three months since the US Navy confirmed the contamination, many families who are serviced by the Navy’s water system say they still do not have clean water.
‘They’ve been poisoned’
On December 3, 2021 – more than 10 days after their water contamination was reported – the US Navy authorised the evacuation of affected families to temporary lodging.
Amanda — along with her husband and two young children — had to move out of their home on Ford Island.
They relocated to a hotel, where they stayed for 84 days.
Since then, both Amanda’s children and her husband have also spent time in emergency at Tripler with health complications, including uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhoea.
“When I raised my right hand, I knew there was inherent risk,” Amanda said of her oath to the military.
“But kids and families did not. And now they’ve been poisoned.”
Navy captain Michael McGinnis, Pacific Fleet Surgeon, provided a statement to NBC’s TODAY, denying there had been admissions to the Tripler facility related to the tainted water.
He says Hawaii military health system providers have conducted 6,637 patient encounters related to the Navy water system contamination as of March 2, 2022, to include active medical evaluation and screening.
“There have been no hospital admissions at Tripler Army Medical Center related to the petroleum exposure,” the statement said.
Amanda, a former company commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, has served on active duty for 15 years with overseas tours in Afghanistan and Korea.
Though her home was been deemed habitable by Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on March 3, she says she and her husband do not feel safe returning with their children.
But they feel there is no other option.
“The military has taken every penny of my basic allowance for housing (BAH) the entire time we’ve been displaced… for a home that was uninhabitable,” Amanda wrote in a recent Facebook post.
“A portion of my BAH has continued to pay for utilities we haven’t used.
“Can you imagine how infuriating it is to be paying a water bill that is covering the cost of this massive flushing charade??
“In addition, we’ve front loaded over $US35,000 in hotel fees alone. “That money will not be fully reimbursed until we move back in our home.
“Do we allow the Navy to put us in debt or do we allow them to gamble on our health?”
Almost watched daughter die
Daisy Stickney lives at Aliamanu Military Reservation, which is also on the contaminated water supply line serviced by the Navy.
She says her 16-year-old daughter had a seizure for the first time in her life two days before the Navy reported the water contamination to community members.
“On November 27, Alizay had her very first seizure while she was working at Target,” Daisy said.
A co-worker was able to catch her daughter before an ambulance was called.
“It was a big deal for our family.”
Two days later, Daisy saw other military spouses talking on Facebook about water contamination.
“As soon as I found out that there could possibly be fuel in our water, I immediately went to smelling it,” she said.
“It seemed unreal.”
Daisy’s family was also authorised to evacuate their home, and moved to a hotel on December 3 for three weeks, but returned to their home for the Christmas holiday.
“When January came, it was really hard to move back into the hotel,” she said.
“Even just getting [Alizay] from the house to the car to the hotel, it became unmanageable.”
Since Alizay’s initial seizure in November, Daisy said her daughter has had more than two dozen seizure and fainting episodes.
“When Alizay goes into a seizure, she faints before (it happens),” Daisy explained.
“It’s not your normal kind of seizure. Her eyes are open, her back is arching. Her seizures are violent.”
Joining the dots
Daisy said she “connected the dots” between the water contamination and the start of Alizay’s medical issues.
But no medical professional who has treated Daisy’s daughter has linked the seizures to the water contamination.
“I was like ‘Oh my gosh, what if…’ (and) I have been saying ‘What if’ ever since,” Daisy said.
“Until they can rule it out, and tell me that the fuel doesn’t trigger her seizures and fainting.”
More questions than answers
The mother of four told TODAY that military medical providers at Tripler Army Medical Center have left her with more questions than answers.
“We’ve been told by one doctor she has POTS, another doctor said she does not,” Daisy said, referencing postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, a condition that impacts blood flow.
“We’re being told that even though our daughter is having seizures, there is no damage to her body.
“She has nobody managing her case.”
Daisy said a civilian provider quoted more than $US9,000 for out-of-pocket care for her family —including chemical toxicity testing and an additional test which measures cellular damage from toxins — which Daisy says the military doctors will not do.
“I almost watched my daughter die on the floor and we’ve literally put our daughter’s life in (their) hands for three months and I can no longer take that chance anymore,” she said.
“She’s on borrowed time.”
Detecting fuel contaminants
In response to Daisy’s claim that military doctors would not conduct adequate testing, Pacific Fleet Surgeon McGinnis said in a statement: “Biomonitoring is not an effective way to detect fuel contaminants in the body.”
“The chemicals found in JP-5 are quickly removed from the body within several hours of exposure and would unlikely to be measurable via biomonitoring,” the statement read.
“Additionally, commonplace, non-harmful exposure to chemicals not found in JP-5 jet fuel might show up in biologic testing, such as those commonly used for food packaging or via gasoline inhalation while pumping gas.”
At time of publication, Daisy told TODAY Alizay has been using a walker to move and Zay “is about the same”.
“Still fainting, still seizing. Her life has consisted of sleeping, doctor appointments, testing, labs, time on the floor and sleeping.”
On March 7, 2022, the Pentagon ordered the permanent closure of the Red Hill fuel storage facility.
“Your health has been impacted, your lives and livelihoods have been disrupted, and in many cases, your very homes have been rendered unavailable to you,” Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin wrote to families.
“We owe you the very best health care we can provide, answers to your many questions, and clean, safe drinking water.
“Quite frankly, we owe you a return to normal.
“And you have my commitment to that end.”
‘Children with chemical burns on genitals’
Kate Needham is the director of operations of Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of military families in privatised housing.
She told TODAY Parents the organisation began getting reports about fuel in the water from families in military housing on November 29, 2021.
During a December visit to Oahu, Needham talked to families who reported vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes and sick pets.
“Multiple families have talked about seizures, and women with menstrual issues, and something that is extremely traumatising is children with chemical burns on their genitals,” she said at the time.
“We have worked with around 1000 families and counting.”
She says the organisation’s focus is to assist families into homes on a different area of the island where the water is not impacted.
“The problem now is that most homes are being cleared, and there is a looming mental health crisis occurring in the background,” she says.
‘History has repeated itself’
It’s not the first time the military has struggled with providing service members and their families clean drinking water.
Between 1950 and 1980, people living and working at US Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina were potentially exposed to drinking water contaminated with chemicals, which included industrial solvents and benzene.
“Scientific and medical evidence has shown an association between exposure to these contaminants during military service and development of certain diseases later on,” the US Department of Veterans Affairs website states.
It lists diseases linked to exposure, including adult leukaemia, bladder and liver cancers, and Parkinson’s disease.
Legislation introduced in 2012 provides health care for military members and family members who had lived on the base in Jacksonville, North Carolina, from 1957 to 1987.
Fight for healthcare
Now, Amanda Feindt and other military families in Hawaii are working with attorney Kristina Baehr of Just Well Law, a firm that specialises in toxic exposure, military housing, and medical negligence.
They are fighting for the same healthcare coverage granted to veterans and their dependents who were exposed to contaminants at Camp Lejeune.
“History has repeated itself,” Kristina Baehr said alongside Hawaii military families in a February 2022 meeting with lawmakers in Washington, DC.
“And now the remedies that helped that situation can help here.
“[We want them] to model legislation after Camp Lejeune and make sure people have medical care going forward for the maladies we know they’re going to have.
“This is not rocket science.
“Jet fuel is very harmful to your health.”
Dr Diana Felton, state toxicologist with the Hawaii Department of Health Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response, calls the crisis in Hawaii “unprecedented”.
“We know lots of people were exposed, we know lots of people have health effects,” Dr Felton said.
“[But] we have no way to measure how much they were exposed to, which has created a lot of challenges in comparisons and how to help people.”
She says medical professionals have no long term studies of ingesting JP-5, a high-flash point jet fuel developed by the Navy.
“We don’t have a model for that type of exposure and unfortunately the way toxicology works — the length of exposure and amount you get really matters,” Dr Felton told TODAY.
“It’s not what people want to hear.
“They want a yes or no answer, and I don’t feel like I can give either of those.”