A University of Hawaii lab has confirmed the presence of a petroleum product in a water sample taken from Red Hill Elementary School on Tuesday, the Hawaii Department Of Health announced on Wednesday afternoon.

The type and quantity of the petroleum is unclear from this test, according to DOH Deputy Director for Environmental Health Kathleen Ho. The state and the Navy are still awaiting the results of more precise testing being done on the mainland, she said. 

Red Hill Elementary School sign.
An unknown type of petroleum was found in the water at Red Hill Elementary School, DOH said. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The finding is validating the suspicions of hundreds of residents in military communities near Pearl Harbor who have been complaining for days that their tap water smells like fuel and that their families have been suffering from health problems, including headaches, rashes and vomiting. 

“We knew it. I’m not surprised,” said Merranda Ramirez, a military spouse and mother of three children who have gotten sick in recent days.

“Now the question is: What’s next? If this is a long-term thing, this is not OK. And there needs to be some sort of accountability.”

Families reported feeling sick in the last week, within days of a 14,000-gallon release of fuel and water a quarter-mile downhill from the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility. The Red Hill shaft, the well the Navy uses to supply drinking water to its military customers, is a half-mile downhill from the tanks.

Hundreds of military community members gathered on Tuesday at a town hall hosted by the Navy.
Hundreds of military community members gathered on Tuesday at a town hall hosted by the Navy. Christina Jedra/Civil Beat 2021

Whether that leak is the cause of the water contamination is unknown. Officials continue to investigate the source of the issue, Ho said. 

The Navy said its initial water testing came out clean and that there was no evidence the water was unsafe. However, on Sunday, it stopped pumping water from its Red Hill shaft, according to the Honolulu Board of Water Supply Chief Engineer Ernie Lau.

The Navy did not respond to a request for comment about the state’s test results.

State Toxicologist Diana Felton said at a virtual press conference on Wednesday afternoon that consuming petroleum can cause health problems that align with residents’ complaints. Those effects include itching, rashes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, fatigue and confusion, she said.

Inhaling these chemicals can also cause pneumonitis, which results in shortness of breath, coughing, fever and wheezing. But Felton said the health department hasn’t been hearing reports of those symptoms. 

Most petroleum hydrocarbons, when ingested, do not get absorbed into the body, she said. Generally, when a person stops exposure to the chemical, symptoms tend to subside, and she encouraged residents experiencing water problems to ventilate their homes by opening windows.

The exact type and severity of health impacts depend on the kind of petroleum though, according to Felton. Some are carcinogenic, she said.

“The potential toxicity of the exact petroleum constituent is going to vary depending on its chemical makeup,” she said. 

The mainland testing of the water samples will help assess the health consequences, she said. 

DOH continues to advise residents who detect signs of water contamination to not consume the water. If the water does not have an odor, DOH says it’s OK to use for washing dishes and doing laundry.

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