- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

A survey of the incidence of disease among residents of Spring Valley is renewing questions about whether the Army’s chemical-weapons tests in the Northwest neighborhood during World War I led to later health problems.

The yearlong, unscientific survey by the Northwest Current, a weekly newspaper, collected health data from 345 Spring Valley households. It found 131 current or former residents with chronic — and sometimes rare and life-threatening — diseases.

Some residents say they believe their illnesses are linked directly to long-term exposure to chemicals that contaminated the soil or were buried after World War I ended in 1918.

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“I’m absolutely and totally convinced it came from the chemicals,” said Geza Teleki, 60, who lived in Spring Valley for most of the period 1974 to 2002 and five years ago developed diabetes, hypothyroidism, and kidney, colon and heart disease.

“You don’t have substantial portions of your internal organs fail within a period of five years if you haven’t been exposed to something,” said Mr. Teleki, who two years ago moved his family to Bethesda.

But Greg Beumel, a toxicologist whose criticisms of the Current’s methodology were cited by the newspaper, yesterday said its findings would be more meaningful if compared with those from a similar neighborhood.

The evidence does raise questions, he said.

“I think we need to see what would happen if a well-designed health study were conducted,” Mr. Beumel said in an interview with The Washington Times.

Mr. Teleki said his kidney failure occurred 10 months ago. His wife, Heather, 50, has a vision problem known as peripheral neuropathy. He said their son, Aidan, 9, has severe headaches and stomach pains.

Mr. Teleki went on dialysis treatment but says he has been rejected for kidney-donor lists because “so many other internal organs are failing.”

The Current’s survey found 160 cases of disease among the 131 current or former residents. The 56 different diseases included Parkinson’s, several types of cancer and blood disorders, among them forms of anemia, which lowers the number of red blood cells. Many were autoimmune disorders, which cause the body to attack itself.

“There’s definitely a higher incidence of illnesses, cancer and other blood-related illnesses in this area than you would find in a normal community of this sort,” said Curtis “Buff” Bohlen, 77, who has lived in Spring Valley with his wife, Janet, 75, since 1958.

Mrs. Bohlen, an avid gardener, discovered four years ago that she has a cancer known as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Mr. Bohlen said the couple have no plans to leave the neighborhood before the Army Corps of Engineers finishes testing his property.

Spring Valley, comprising about 1,300 homes, is adjacent to Massachusetts Avenue north of American University.

The Current’s extensive report includes three health experts who studied conditions there and cast doubt on the newspaper’s findings, which were inserted into Wednesday’s editions in a package of 11 articles and a two-page map.

In one article, Mr. Beumel and two other specialists challenge the survey. One criticism was that its unscientific methodology resulted in anecdotal, inconclusive findings.

Mr. Beumel, the toxicologist, requested a copy of a D.C. Health Department study comparing Spring Valley residents with those in Potomac. He also called for an expansive investigation by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Current reporter Charles Bermpohl, who researched and wrote the articles, agreed with those Spring Valley residents who say it is difficult to conclusively link the illnesses to chemicals buried more than 80 years ago.

Mr. Bermpohl, 62, a journalist for 35 years, said the evidence is circumstantial but compelling.

“There were no studies done like this, going out into the community and knocking on doors, or going out and talking to people,” Mr. Bermpohl said.

The Current’s report suggests the chemicals could have contributed to illnesses in the family of former President George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Bush and his wife, Barbara, lived in Spring Valley with son Marvin for five months in 1967. Mr. and Mrs. Bush both now have an autoimmune disorder of the thyroid known as Graves’ disease. Marvin Bush was diagnosed with colitis in 1986; doctors removed his colon.

A spokesman for the former president, who is 80, last week said the Bush family has no comment on the matter.

During World War I, the Army devoted 661 acres, 1,200 chemists and more than 600 technicians to its American University Experiment Station, a center for testing and developing chemical weapons such as chlorine, chloride, cyanide, Lewisite, mustard gas and ricin.

The Army was developing weapons to counter Germany’s. When the war ended, officials had assembled a large cache of weapons at the American University but had nowhere to put them. The Army shipped some chemicals to another testing site and buried others.

Camille Saum, 60, an interior designer, lived in the Spring Valley neighborhood until she was 20. She says her childhood was dominated by physical weakness and sickness.

Miss Saum said she developed a form of anemia at age 5 and now has renal stenosis and lupus. And she believes her learning disabilities, including dyslexia, are related to chemical exposure.

“The reason I’m upset with this is because I didn’t have a nice childhood,” Miss Saum said. “I was absolutely so embarrassed and humiliated because I was so stupid. Now I run a successful business. I was always just sort of sick, but nobody ever knew why.”

Joe Weber contributed to this report.

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