Linking the Health Crisis at Camp Lejeune to Toxic Water Contaminants

ByQamer Javed

Feb 6, 2024

Over thirty years, from 1953 to 1987, the water at Camp Lejeune was laced with harmful chemicals. The contamination led to severe health problems for more than one million residents and workers. 

Let us draw insights from academic research on this environmental health crisis, emphasizing the scientific evidence behind these alarming findings.

What Caused the Contamination?

Several factors contributed to the water contamination at Camp Lejeune:

  • Leaking underground storage tanks: These tanks, which held fuel and chemicals, corroded over time, allowing their contents to seep into the groundwater.
  • Industrial spills: Hazardous chemical spills into groundwater occurred due to the base’s day-to-day activities. This included those related to vehicle maintenance and dry cleaning.
  • Off-base dry cleaning firm: ABC One-Hour Cleaners, located near the base, mishandled PCE, a dry cleaning solvent. Their improper disposal resulted in PCE contaminating the groundwater, even reaching the base’s water supply.

Much later, in 2009, the U.S. government acknowledged Camp Lejeune’s water contamination.  It resulted in the high-profile Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuit, which is active to date. Only in 2022, the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, part of the PACT Act, allowed victims to sue for damages.

Chemical Profile and Toxicological Effects

The water pollution at the camp base involved hazardous chemicals, notably trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride, and benzene.

Trichloroethylene (TCE)

TCE is a volatile organic compound widely considered a solvent. At Camp Lejeune, it was found in the water at a high level (1,400 parts per billion), exceeding the EPA’s safe limit. 

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Studies claim TCE exposure is linked to a variety of cancers, including kidney and liver cancers. The range also comprises non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Classified by IARC as a known human carcinogen,  TCE exposure can lead to neurotoxic effects. The severities include cognitive impairment and motor neuron dysfunction. 

Perchloroethylene (PCE)

PCE, another solvent detected in Camp Lejeune’s water, is known to be a neurotoxin. The EPA has classified PCE as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” based on suggestive human studies and conclusive animal studies. Similarly, the IARC labels it “likely carcinogenic to human beings”.

The ATSDR detected PCE levels in Camp Lejeune’s water above the EPA’s safety limit. The EPA sets a maximum contaminant level for drinking water at 5 parts per billion (ppb) to protect human health. Discovering PCE at levels up to 215 ppb indicates severe contamination that greatly exceeds federal safety standards.

Furthermore, research reveals that PCE exposure is significantly linked to bladder cancer and possibly to breast cancer.

Benzene

Benzene, a known carcinogen, was also present in the camp water during the event. There is a strong correlation between benzene exposure and leukemia, specifically AML or acute myeloid leukemia.  

Despite benzene’s known risks and its widespread use in manufacturing, debates continue over its connection to the non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). Moreover, NHL encompasses over 60 different subtypes of cancerous tumors in lymphoid tissue. Diagnosing and classifying NHL is complicated due to the diversity of these subtypes. 

Some studies dispute benzene’s role in increasing NHL risk, while others affirm it. The meta-analysis, which combines data from various studies, clarifies this relationship by offering evidence on benzene exposure and NHL risk.

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Vinyl Chloride

Formed during the active decay of TCE and PCE, vinyl chloride is a potent carcinogen. In 2023, a study found that vinyl chloride exposure increases the risk of liver angiosarcoma, a rare but aggressive cancer.

Vinyl chloride is used mainly in making PVC plastics. Research has shown that even small amounts of vinyl chloride can be hazardous. The compound can cause damage to the liver without leading to cirrhosis, highlighting its toxic effect on the liver cells.

Efforts to track and reduce cases of liver angiosarcoma have led to a registry in Europe. The findings show a decline in cases with improved safety measures. Despite lower exposure levels in countries with strict regulations, risks remain, especially where controls are lax. Vinyl chloride metabolizes quickly in the liver, leading to mutations that can trigger cancer. Studies in animals and humans confirm its genotoxic effects, including DNA damage and mutations related to cancer.

Linking Contaminants to Diseases

Currently, over 15 diseases are directly linked to the VOC contaminants in the water of Camp Lejeune. Let us take a detailed view of the conditions with the highest risks and occurrences.

Cancer

The primary concern at Camp Lejeune is the increased risk of several cancers. TCE is linked to kidney and liver cancer, whereas PCE is linked to bladder and possibly breast cancer. The occurrence of different cancers among Camp Lejeune veterans and personnel has been statistically higher than in the general population.

Birth Defects and Reproductive Issues

Exposure to these chemicals, particularly TCE and PCE, is linked to serious reproductive issues and birth defects. 

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Research indicates a fourfold increase in neural tube faults such as spina bifida. This is particular among infants after in-utero exposure to Camp Lejeune’s water. It further suggests a notably higher occurrence of oral clefts in these infants compared to a reference group. The data reveals that increased exposure to contaminated water directly correlated with higher rates of birth defects.

Neurological Disorders

Neurological disorders, like Parkinson’s disease, are found to be common among Camp Lejeune victims. In 2021, a study reported that long-term exposure to TCE and PCE can disrupt brain function. This leads to an increased risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases.

Immune System Disorders

Some malfunctioning of the immune system associated with the event of Camp Lejeune is also evident. These include rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, lupus, psoriasis, multiple sclerosis, and childhood hematopoietic cancer. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals can make individuals more likely to get affected by autoimmune diseases.

Scientific data unequivocally connects the water toxins to a host of grave illnesses, including neurological abnormalities, birth deformities, and cancers. According to TorHoerman Law, the Camp Lejeune-related health issues serve as a reminder of the negative effects of environmental contamination. These results highlight how crucial strict environmental laws and oversight should be to prevent similar disasters. 

We must learn from the past as science progresses. This is to make sure that a catastrophe involving the environment and public health never happens again.

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