In November 2021, residents and employees of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii reported smelling a fuel like odor in their drinking water. As of early December, nearly 1,000 households had complained to the U.S. Navy, the water system owner and operator, the state Department of Health and physicians about the odor and some also reported illnesses such as difficulty breathing, stomach pains, vomiting, nausea, rashes and other symptoms. Adults, children, and pets have been impacted. Early evidence indicates one of the drinking water wells for the water system was contaminated with an unknown petroleum mixture. The water system serves 65,230 people. As of early December, water users received conflicting guidance about how to use their water from the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Navy. Complicating the response was that there remained little understanding of which specific chemicals were present in the well water and water that reached building faucets due to lack of testing for the specific chemicals. This response is ongoing and we are supporting the people affected, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies.
Resources: Government and Media Websites
- U.S. Pacific Fleet updates
- State of Hawaii Department of Health updates
- Board of Water Supply updates
- Honolulu Civil Beat
- Hawaii News Now
- Honolulu Star-Advertiser
- Armed Forces Housing Advocates guidance on What to Do With Contaminated [Household] Items
Organizations Supporting Community Response and Recovery
Frequently Asked Questions to Us
Is the water safe to drink?
As of December 6, 2021 publicly available information has not identified the array of chemicals present in the water. It is not advisable to drink the water as it's safety cannnot be assured.
Is it okay to smell the water or taste it to see if it's safe?
No. After incidents like these, if water smells or tastes unusual and has not been chemically confirmed to be safe, do not drink it. If the water does not smell or taste unusual, that does not mean it is safe. For example, benzene can cause acute health impacts to children at 26 to 200 parts per billion (ppb) based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and California agency conclusions. You cannot smell benzene until 2,000 ppb. It is unknown if benzene is or was present in the water due to lack of chemical testing results. Benzene is a common fuel constituent. From a long-term exposure perspective, if you drink 1 liter of water per day for 70 years, the USEPA says benzene should not exceed 5 ppb. Protecting populations from acute exposure is the most important aspect of the early response.
What chemicals are in the water?
At the present time, it is unclear.
Is JP8 or JP5 fuel a chemical?
JP8 and JP5 are mixtures of chemicals. They contain a host of different chemicals each with different levels of toxicity.
What chemicals were my family and I exposed to?
This is unknown at the present time because of the lack of chemical specific testing results for both the contaminated well, distribution system, and plumbing.
Where are the chemicals now?
Public reports indicate that the Navy has been flushing some parts of their distribution system. Because of the lack of chemical specific testing by the State of Hawaii and U.S. Navy, it is unknown where the chemicals are in the water distribution system and plumbing.
How long will this take to restore safe water?
This depends. Right now with little chemical specific testing results by the U.S. Navy and the State of Hawaii, it's probably weeks to months. We recommend that the U.S. Navy and the State of Hawaii first determine what specific chemicals could be in the water, then go test to find out that those chemicals are still there or gone. After the system has been confirmed to be decontaminated, routine monitoring should be required by the state for the regulated public water system. This is common post disaster.
After a disaster, how much water does a person need per day for drinking? for hygiene and sanitation?
Previously we calculated the amount of water needed per person per day. It depends on the activity and a host of other considerations. That info can be found here. It turns out different organizations can have drastically different theories, like 0.2 gallons to 4.4 gallons.
Do water samples need to be analyzed by a certified laboratory?
Early in disaster response we encourage evaluating the contaminated water using multiple methods in a rapid way. Certified laboratories have some surety associated with their results. They sometimes can be slow and they are not mistake free. After the chemical spill in West Virginia, a science support team discovered 1 state certified lab used heavily by West Virginia was reporting erroneous results. Also, laboratories at colleges, universities, and corporations sometimes can provide valuable insights into the contaminated water. The initial water testing developed in response to that 2014 chemical spill was partly developed by a local industry. For confirming the water is safe or unsafe, certified laboratories who are testing for the specific chemicals found are preferred.
I want to test my own water, what should I test for?
Because the array of specific chemicals in the suspected contaminated well water are still unknown by the State of Hawaii and the U.S. Navy, it is unclear exactly what's in the water. Until the specific chemicals are identified, testing water at your home or buildings will have little to no value.
Should I install a home water treatment unit?
Home treatment devices are NOT designed to make chemical spill contaminated water safe. Further, you need to know what's in the water and the range of levels for it. Do not try to treat the water yourself or listen to commercial vendors trying to sell you devices. You must know what's in the water and the range of contamination first. Then, followup testing to make certain those devices work is important. Not all devices are installed and operate correctly, even "certified" ones.
Rapid Water Contamination Response and Recovery Team
Andrew Whelton, Ph.D. an environmental engineering faculty member, who is nationally recognized for water infrastructure contamination and recovery. Dr. Whelton has 20 years of experience. He is a Professor of civil, environmental, and ecological engineering at Purdue University and the Director of the Healthy Plumbing Consortium, a group of leading plumbing companies working to improve building water safety and technology. His team was called into California after the 2017 Camp Fire to help the community determine what chemicals were in the contaminated drinking water distribution systems as they were unknown at the time. Through onsite and reachback support, his team helped the utility, the county, state, and federal agencies discover hazardous waste scale drinking water contamination, identify a sampling and flushing plans, and community guidance regarding exposures. Direct community support involved participating in town hall meetings, creating and issuing home plumbing and well inspection and testing guidance, hosting a public education event on the topic if plumbing contamination and decontamination, and use. Since then health departments and USEPA have been citing his Center for Plumbing Safety’s guidance on response and recovery. In 2014, he was called in by West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin after the 2014 Charleston chemical spill where 15% of the state’s population was delivered toxic water with unknown chemicals. Through two research teams he assisted the state and community to recover from the incident. His research teams have been called by health departments nationwide for help post-disaster. They have identified best practices for planning for and recovering from natural and made-made disasters that affect drinking water systems. He has extensive experience understanding material aging and chemical fate in water distribution systems and building plumbing, with an emphasis in plastic materials. He has organized and presented town hall public meetings, conducted sampling at private residences and government buildings, and provided Governor’s staff feedback on evidence-based public messaging and engaged in press conferences. He’s leading a nationally funded drinking water plumbing safety initiative with multiple universities and industrial collaborators. He previously worked for the U.S. Army, National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), and private firms. He earned a B.S. in Civil Engineering, M.S. in Environmental Engineering, and Ph.D. in Civil Engineering from Virginia Tech.
Caitlin Proctor, Ph.D. is an assistant professor of agricultural, biological, environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University. She has several years of experience helping utilities and agencies better understand drinking water quality in distribution systems and plumbing. She is the Associate Director of the Healthy Plumbing Consortium at Purdue University and was part of the Camp Fire response team. Her projects have investigated the interactions between water chemistry factors and opportunistic pathogen (e.g., Legionella pneumophila) growth, the impact of pipe material choice on biofilm formation, and the relationship between stagnation and biological safety of water. In 2018, she managed a 600+ sample multi-site field sampling campaign in response to Legionella contamination and directed emergency corrective actions. She has experience with a wide array of biological methods, including flow cytometry, culturing, and various molecular biology methods. She earned her B.S. and M.S. in Civil Engineering at Virginia Tech. She completed her Ph.D. research at EAWAG, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Switzerland, with a degree in systems science awarded by ETH Zurich.
Amisha Shah, Ph.D. is a chemical and environmental engineer with 14 years of experience in environmental chemistry, analytical instrumentation and analysis, physiochemical process design and optimization. She was part of the Camp Fire response team and actively support utilities understand contamination and decontamination post-wildfire. Her work primarily focuses on evaluating the reaction kinetics and pathways of various organic contaminants during water disinfection. Due to this work, she has extensive analytical expertise in measuring a wide-array of volatile and non-volatile organic compounds via HPLC, LC/MS/MS, GC/MS/MS, GC-ECD, IC, and IC/MS/MS. These compounds have included trihalomethanes (THMs), haloacetic acids (HAA), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), aromatic nitrogen compounds, low molecular weight organic sulfur compounds (COS, CS2, and DMS), sulfur-based amino acids, and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). In her recent efforts, she has placed an important focus towards evaluating how chemical interactions in aqueous systems can be strongly influenced by their surrounding water matrix. Other research efforts have found that different water quality parameters can significantly influence disinfection by-product formation from cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes that are routinely used in premise plumbing. Dr. Shah earned a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Washington University at St. Louis and Ph.D. in Environmental Engineering from Georgia Technical Institute of Technology. She has previously worked for EAWAG, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Switzerland and Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
David Cwiertny, Ph.D. is the William D. Ashton Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Iowa (UI). He also directs the state-funded Center for Health Effects of Environmental Contamination (CHEEC), which conducts research on the links between environmental pollution and public health. His research expertise is drinking water treatment and drinking water quality at the interface of public health and public policy. At CHEEC, he leads drinking water projects focused on lead and copper in drinking water, particularly focusing on schools and childcares, and quality issues arising from onsite treatment techniques and premise plumbing, particularly for those consumers reliant on private well water. At UI, he also directs the environmental policy research program at the UI Public Policy Center, which supports integration of science into policy making at various levels of government. This role leverages his experience as a Congressional Fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2016, when he worked as technical committee staff on energy and the environment for the Committee for Energy and Commerce in the US House of Representatives.
Juneseok Lee, Ph.D., P.E. is an associate professor of civil & environmental engineering at Manhattan College, Riverdale, NY. He has over 15 years of experience in drinking water distribution systems’ hydraulic analysis, modeling, and asset management and was part of the Camp Fire response team. His work has been supported by major grants from funding bodies such as the National Science Foundation, the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the California Water Service Company. His recent 5-year projects have investigated water mains failures and developed the asset management program for a water utility that provides service to approximately 1.7 million people located in 83 communities across California. The key infrastructure components supporting this service chain include about 9,200 kilometers of water main, 134,400 line and control valves, 970 booster stations, 650 wells, 7 surface water treatment plants, 420 water storage facilities, and 450 supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) transmitting units. He’s a registered Professional Engineer of Civil Engineering in the state of California and currently serves as an Associate Editor of the ASCE Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management. Dr. Lee earned B.S. in Civil & Environmental Engineering from Korea University, Seoul, South Korea, and M.S. and Ph.D. in Civil & Environmental Engineering from Virginia Tech.
Other Experts. The team has technical assistance reachback capability to experts across the globe, including major leading U.S. organizations. Additional people can be formally or informally engaged on risk communication, health risk assessments, hydraulics, community engagement, and other specialties depending on situation developments.
[The opinions on this page are those of the authors and not any other entity]