THE FATAL SOLUTIONAIR FORCE MECHANIC SAYS HIS LEUKEMIA IS LINKED TO SOLVENT CONTAINING DEADLY BENZENE
Mike Page joined the Air Force when he was 17 years old. He stayed out of trouble, served his country, made his rank and saved a little money. By the time he was ready to retire and move to Colorado to open a hunting and fishing lodge with his new wife, he was the master sergeant in charge of the jet engine repair shop at Luke Air Force Base.
And he was dying.
I'll have to say the Air Force has taken good care of me," Page says from his hospital bed at the air base west of Phoenix. I got my 20 years in; they've taken care of my medical needs. Financially there hasn't been a problem-the only beef I have with them is that they killed me."
According to his military doctors, the 39-year-old Page has a life expectancy of weeks to months. He believes his acute myelogenous leukemia was brought on by prolonged exposure to a solvent he used daily in his job as a jet engine mechanic.
Page found out a year ago-within weeks of his retirement ceremony-that he had leukemia. And he believes there may be thousands of American military personnel in similar straits.
While Page was undergoing treatment at the Air Force's Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, he says, a staffer told him the hospital saw Ôon average" one or two new cases of acute myelogenous leukemia a month among retirees who had held military jobs similar to Page's.
And those are the ones who make it to retirement," Page says. You don't process out dead people."
Page says he personally met several AML patients at Wilford Hall who had worked in conditions similar to those at his engine shop, and that six military doctors told him his condition might have resulted from his exposure to the solvent.
After I was diagnosed with AML, they went down a list," Page says. They asked me if I had been to Chernobyl, if I had served anywhere in Europe-because of Chernobyl. They asked if I had served on a nuclear submarine, if I worked around nuclear weapons, what kind of chemicals I worked around. When we got to this stuff, that was enough for them. They didn't go any further. It was like, `That's it.'"
This stuff" is a hydrocarbon solvent the Air Force calls P-D-680, Type II. It is a rather mundane product, sold in hardware stores as mineral spirits" and supplied to the military by at least 15 different companies. Since 1963, standing Air Force technical orders have required that military jet engine bearings and other parts be degreased and cleaned with this clear, slightly aromatic liquid with about the consistency of turpentine. Page says it is a highly effective solvent used constantly by mechanics not only to cut through carbon deposits and grease but as a general-purpose cleaner.
And it contains a deadly, cancer-causing chemical.
P-D-680 contains .05 percent ethyl benzene, a known carcinogen and one of only a very few risk factors specifically noted in the medical literature written about acute myelogenous leukemia. A French medical journal first noted a causal relationship between exposure to benzene fumes and leukemia in 1928, and subsequent studies during the past 60 years have affirmed the link. Benzene is known to cause several types of leukemia, and a person's risk of developing leukemia increases significantly after short periods of exposure to small amounts of the chemical.
Dale Haralson, a Tucson attorney who has advised Page that under current law he has no case against the government, believes the retired master sergeant may not be the only victim of P-D-680.
I only know of one other case, a guy in New Mexico who was in the Navy, but I suspect there may be a lot more cases," Haralson says. If Page had suffered lengthy exposure to the solvent in private industry, the lawyer says, he could have sued the company and manufacturer under product liability law.
Chris Kelley, a spokesman for the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., says he is unaware of any other cases of leukemia that might be attributed to P-D-680, but adds that it's well-known benzene causes cancer." Similarly, Donna Reagan of the Surgeon General of the Air Force's office in Washington says she had not heard of any extraordinary instances of leukemia that might be connected to the use of the product, but acknowledged the danger of benzene.
John Feiling, a spokesman for Safety-Kleen Corporation, one of several companies that supply P-D-680 to the Department of Defense, says he is unaware of any cancer risk associated with the product.
Mike Page wonders why, during 20 years in the Air Force, he was never warned of the risks associated with a product he used daily. Like other members of the armed forces, he is prohibited from suing the Air Force, and he has no case against the various manufacturers of P-D-680 as long as the product they supplied did not violate procurement rules set by the government. He wonders why P-D-680 apparently is still in use in all branches of the service when alternative solvents exist. And he wonders how many other servicemen and -women have contracted leukemia after they've left the service, and how many others have died without anyone connecting their deaths to exposure to P-D-680.
It's another Agent Orange," he says. It's too late for me, but I know they're still using the stuff. It's Department of Defensewide; they use it in every branch of the service. And the guys who are using the stuff don't have any idea that it can hurt them."
The petrochemical typically lodges in bone marrow, liver and body fat, interfering with the body's capacity to produce white blood cells. In a 1985 study, the Environmental Protection Agency cited epidemiological studies-involving people, not lab animals-in a report that showed exposure to airborne benzene at levels of ten parts per million or less, for one year or less, increased the chances of developing cancer by 560 percent. Exposure for five or more years increased the cancer risk by 2,100 times.
Other studies are more alarming. In May 1987, the California Air Resources Board released a report stating benzene emissions from gasoline stations significantly increase the cancer risk of people who refuel their own vehicles or simply live near stations. The study showed that benzene fumes could cause between 7 and 51 cases of cancer among every one million people who use self-service gas stations.
Mike Page says he was exposed to benzene fumes nearly every day for 20 years and that the Air Force never informed him of the potential risks. While material safety data sheets supplied by the manufacturers of P-D-680 advise the use of respirators and gas masks, Air Force documents that Page has compiled make no mention of any potential cancer risk and state that good general ventilation is normally adequate." In practice, Page says, open vats" of the solvent sit around closed shops and the only precautions generally taken with its use are rubber gloves. And that's to prevent dermatitis, to keep your hands from drying out," Page says. And that's not really practical when you're reaching up to snug up a nut or something, that's not done with gloves on. It runs all down your arms."
Exposure to the fumes, Page says, is constant.
It comes in 55-gallon drums. We screw a faucet in it and leave a bucket hanging over the faucet," Page says. Guys slosh it on with paintbrushes, with whatever is handy. On cold days, they seal the shop up as tight as they can, and you're just breathing the stuff."
Air Force technical manuals from 1988-which Page says still are in effectÏdo caution that P-D-680 is toxic to skin, eyes and respiratory tract," but they don't warn mechanics it is carcinogenic. And there are no warning labels on the drums.
A former chief master sergeant at Luke who asks not be identified remembers that P-D-680 was considered so benign that during the 1970s some airmen slathered it on their cheeks after shaving.
You'd come home drenched in it," he says. Nobody thought anything about it."
It's good stuff, it really does work good," Page says. Too good. One thing that shows up in your job performance, if you're a good mechanic you return parts clean. That boosts the confidence of the guys who fly the planes. I can't speak for the guys in the motor shop, but if they know about it, they'll use it, too. They couldn't not use it. It's too good a product."
Page, who was hospitalized in early May, expects to leave the hospital soon. He and his wife, Mary Ann, say they're still planning to operate a lodge in the Rockies. The movers are scheduled to haul their belongings to Colorado this week.
THE MARINARA-GO-ROUND... v5-27-92
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.