As worries linger over tap water tainted by a chemical spill in West Virginia, and by oil and gas drilling from Pennsylvania to Texas, the health consequences of another water contamination — one that many say was the worst in U.S. history — are becoming increasingly clear.
U.S. Marines stationed at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune during decades when toxic chemicals leached into on-base water wells have since suffered elevated risks of death from several types of cancer as well as Lou Gehrig’s disease, according to a government report released Wednesday.
“This study is vindication for what we’ve been arguing and fighting for over the past 10 years,” said Mike Partain, who was born and raised at Camp Lejeune and developed breast cancer at the age of 39.
“We’d been told year after year that there was no science to back up a link between exposure and disease. Now, we have two studies,” he said, referring also to a paper published in December by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which found a link between exposure to Camp Lejeune tap water and increased risks of birth defects and childhood cancers.
Partain and other advocates hope the accumulating evidence will attract greater government help for victims and their families, including those who may still fall ill in the decades ahead. An estimated 1 million Marines and family members at Camp Lejeune were exposed to drinking water poisoned by the solvents trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE), as well as the fuel additive benzene, between 1953 and 1987.
“There is no speculation anymore,” said Partain. “The time for talk is over. Now, it’s time to act.”
In the latest study, also from the CDC’s ATSDR, researchers compared more than 150,000 Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1975 and 1985 to a similar group of 150,000-plus Marines stationed at California’s Camp Pendleton during the same time period.
Ten percent more cancer deaths turned up among Marines at Camp Lejeune. In particular, the researchers found these Marines faced greater risks of dying from kidney, liver, esophageal, multiple myeloma, Hodgkin lymphoma and cervical cancers, as well as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Comparisons for each individual condition, however, did not reach statistical significance.
“That’s consistent with what I’d expect,” said Richard Clapp, an environmental health expert at the Boston University School of Public Health, noting the known and suspected dangers associated with these industrial chemicals.
Clapp, who serves as an expert on the ATSDR’s Camp Lejeune Community Assistance Panel but was not involved in the study, helped to link well water contaminated with TCE and PCE to an unusual number of childhood leukemia cases in Woburn, Mass. — an experience that became the basis of the book and movie “A Civil Action.”
The TCE levels at Camp Lejeune were far higher than what Clapp found in Woburn, he said.
Dr. Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer at the ATSDR, noted in an interview with The Huffington Post that there “appears to be an increased risk of dying in the study population at Camp Lejeune when compared to the control group for several causes of death.”
The study further found that the risk of dying from several of the conditions grew higher with increased exposures to the contaminants, said Kapil. But he cautioned that the study “should not be construed as providing definitive causal evidence.”
“It also can’t answer questions about specific individuals and how they might specifically have been impacted by exposure at Camp Lejeune,” he added.
Capt. Maureen Krebs, a Marine Corps spokeswoman, also emphasized the study’s limitations. But she said the Corps hopes that the research “will assist those who have experienced health issues they believe are associated with the water they drank in the past at Camp Lejeune when consulting with their healthcare professionals.”
“The drinking water at Camp Lejeune currently meets all government drinking water standards and is tested more often than required,” Krebs said in an email to HuffPost.
Because the latest study only tracked cancer-related deaths, and not cases of people living with the disease, advocates are currently pushing the ATSDR to conduct a broader study of cancer incidence among those exposed at Camp Lejeune. Less than 6 percent of the people in the study groups had died when the latest study was conducted, which hampered the researchers’ power to find statistical significance. Due to the long latency period of many types of cancer, experts warn that many more cases potentially attributable to Camp Lejeune contamination may still arise.
“There are a lot of challenges to conducting large-scale cancer incidence studies,” said Kapil. “But we are considering all of the various options.”
A study of the incidence of male breast cancer, meanwhile, is currently underway. Partain said that 85 men with the extremely rare condition and who spent time at Camp Lejeune during the contamination period have so far been identified.
Partain works closely with retired Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger, who has devoted the last 17 years of his life to Camp Lejeune contamination research and advocacy. The two were central figures in an award-winning documentary, “Semper Fi: Always Faithful,” which told the Camp Lejeune contamination story in 2011.
The story continues. Ensminger said that he has encountered yet more evidence of government “collusion” and cover-ups since HuffPost reported in January 2012 on the U.S. military’s apparent suppression of information concerning thetoxic water scandal.
In August 2012, Ensminger and Partain stood by as President Barack Obama signed the Janey Ensminger Act, named after Ensminger’s 9-year-old daughter who was born on the base and died of a rare form of leukemia. The legislation aims to provide medical care for Marines and dependents who may have been affected by the contamination. It covers 15 health conditions, including lung, breast and bladder cancer, leukemia, infertility and kidney damage.
Still, advocates argue that the new law falls short. Partain referred to it as a “Band-Aid” and a “stopgap.”
“Now that the science is there for children and Marines at the base,” he said, “Congress needs to step up and grant presumptive service connections to provide disability and survivor benefits.”
Marie Trone of Tampa, Fla., was stationed at Camp Lejeune for about 10 months in 1987. Shortly after receiving information in the mail last year concerning the Camp Lejeune contamination and the newly legislated health care benefits, she noticed a lump in her breast. A mammogram in November confirmed her fears.
Trone said she is grateful to have VA coverage for her breast cancer treatment, but worries it will not be enough to keep her financially afloat. “I’m concerned I’m not going to be physically able to teach. I’ve already missed work from chemotherapy, and that’s after just the first round,” said Trone, an environmental science instructor at Valencia College in Orlando. She recalled having to leave the classroom during a recent lab course to vomit.
“I understand what is happening. I showered in these chemicals. They were absorbed through my skin. I inhaled them, drank them, washed clothes in them,” she said. “I’m not looking for handouts. I just need something to get me through this period.”
Trone also expressed anger that extends well beyond her own battle with cancer. “It angers me that they tried to cover it up,” she said. “And it angers me that water is getting contaminated all over the country right now with hydraulic fracturing. This is one case and one base, but I predict similar things are going to be happening across the entire U.S. in another 20 to 25 years.”