Some 75,000 Marines and their families, quartered in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, were exposed to toxic tap water that may have caused cancer and birth defects.
At least 40 former U.S. Marines or sons of Marines who lived at Camp Lejeune have been diagnosed with the cancer that strikes fewer than 2,000 men a year, compared with about 200,000 women.
U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina was established in 1942. In 1982, the Marine Corps discovered specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the drinking water provided by two of the eight water treatment plants on base.
Water from the Tarawa Terrace Treatment Plant was contaminated by PCE (perchloroethylene or tetrachloroethylene). The source of the contamination was the waste disposal practices at ABC One-Hour Cleaners, an off-base dry cleaning firm. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) modeled the contamination and determined that the Tarawa Terrace system had PCE levels that exceeded the current standard of 5 micrograms per liter (ìg/L) for 346 months between November 1957 and February 1987. (Note: 1 ìg/L of a drinking water contaminant is equivalent to 1 part per billion or ppb) The most contaminated wells were shut down in February 1985.
Water from the Hadnot Point Treatment Plant was contaminated primarily by TCE (trichloroethylene). Other contaminants in the drinking water included DCE (t-1,2-dichloroethylene), PCE and benzene. The system was contaminated by multiple sources: leaking underground storage tanks, industrial area spills, and waste disposal sites.
Health effects of exposures to these drinking water contaminants are uncertain, the government website says. Most available information comes from animal studies or studies of workers who use these chemicals in their workplace. Very few studies have been conducted of people exposed to these chemicals in their drinking water.
ATSDR has been assessing the effects of exposure to drinking water containing VOCs since 1993 and is planning to conduct a mortality study and a health questionnaire survey of active duty personnel, dependents, and civilian employees who were at the base during the period of drinking water contamination.
But the list of diseases believed to be caused by the contaminated water is long and unusual, including, among other things, birth defects, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, kidney disease, and a multitude of cancers, including the very rare male breast cancer.
A Senate defense appropriations bill was passed Tuesday night containing an amendment pertaining to victims of chemical-laden drinking water on base between 1950 and 1985. The amendment would prevent disposal of claims filed by former military and their families connecting illnesses to that water until a lengthy course of testing by the ATSDR is complete.
"I really think we cannot leave these families with the mounting medical problems and the half answers that they've been getting," Sen. Kay Hagan, D-NC, told the Daily News on Wednesday. "If we stop now that mission will not be accomplished."
ATSDR announced last month that it would continue tests, including a health study and water modeling, in spite of a National Research Council report in June that found no conclusive link between the chemicals TCE and PCE in base water and hundreds of reported illnesses. The studies, Hagan said, could take two years or more to complete.
Among those testifying at the hearing is Mike Partain of Tallahassee, Florida, a male breast cancer survivor who was conceived and born aboard Camp Lejeune.
Partain said he was testifying "to illustrate that the veterans are being affected by this and not only the veterans, but their families. A lot of these people have no insurance, and they have no way to get adequate medical care for their families."
He also recalled how another male breast cancer patient, Kris Thomas, had presented the link between male breast cancer and water on base to the National Academy of Sciences in 2007. Nothing was done then to explore the connection.
An Onslow County native, Jerry Ensminger, is in Washington, D.C. Ensminger, of Richlands, is a military retiree who believes he lost his 9-year-old daughter Janey to leukemia caused by toxic water on base.
Ensminger travels to Washington nearly every week, calling lobbying on behalf of the "poisoned patriots" his full-time job.
Partain said that if Congress does not begin to hold the Department of Defense, the Marine Corps and the Navy responsible for what happened at Camp Lejeune, it will be difficult for him to keep up the fight.
"I scraped the bottom of the barrel to come up (to Washington)," he said. "We can't fight this. We don't have the resources."
In a press release the Senate committee said - U.S. Senator Daniel K. Akaka (D-HI), Chairman of the Veterans' Affairs Committee, today held a hearing on how the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense respond to in service exposures to environmental hazards.
The four exposures examined involved an incinerator near the Atsugi Naval Air Facility, water contamination at the Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina, chemicals at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in Iraq, and burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Committee heard testimony from VA, DOD, scientific experts, as well as affected veterans and veterans' family members.
Senator Akaka said: "As the Committee charged with oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs, we must be certain that VA is providing appropriate health care and compensation to those who are harmed by exposures while serving in the military. For VA to do that, however, the Department of Defense must first determine who was exposed, what they were exposed to, and the health consequences of such exposure, and then share that information with VA."