Camp Lejeune Toxic Water Legacy

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Camp Lejeune’s contaminated wells are now closed but the adverse health effects may have impacted an estimated 500,000 veterans and dependents. 

(CAMP LEJEUNE, NC) – Veterans and dependents of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina continue to experience cancer and other serious health effects from exposure to organic solvents like trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and benzene.

Courtesy: Defense Department

Camp Lejeune is one of the 130 military bases on the EPA National Priority List (Superfund list). Many of them contaminated with the same organic solvents as Camp Lejeune.  There’s no government policy to notify veterans and dependents of their possible exposure to toxic contaminants.  Thousands have served on these Superfund bases.  The number exposed and ill is impossible to estimate.

The Agency for Toxic Substance Disease Registry (ATSDR)—a Federal government agency responsible for public health assessments of EPA Superfund sites— reported health problems in people of all ages from drinking water contaminated with organic solvents. These include aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, brain cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, esophageal cancer, and Hodgkin’s disease.

According to Congressional testimony on Lejeune’s wells from Dr. Thomas Sinks in July 2007, “ATSDR has collected medical records…Fifty-seven children confirmed as having a condition of interest include 17 children with a neural tube defect, 24 children with a cleft lip or palate, and 16 children with leukemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  An additional 42 possible case children were either confirmed not to have the condition, refused to participate, or had no available medical records.  The status for an additional 7 children is still pending…birth defects and cancer does not, by itself, tell us whether these conditions are associated with exposure to contaminated water”.

The contaminated wells from the Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point water distribution systems were closed years ago. The legacy of the health effects of the exposure to the contamination continues to plague former residents of the base.

Congressional legislation was introduced this year in both the House (HR 4555, Janey Ensminger Act) and the Senate (Senator Akaka’s original bill) to provide health care coverage to both Camp Lejeune veterans and dependents.

A Senate Veterans Affairs Committee bill introduced by Senator Daniel Akaka (D, Hi) in January 2010, is still awaiting a Committee report before a bill number can be assigned and the bill moved to the Senate floor. Major differences between the two bills present formidable barriers to the passage of any compromise legislation.  For example, HR 4555 provides for health coverage by the Department of Veterans Affairs while Senator Akaka’s bill would give both veterans and dependents access to the Defense Department’s TRICARE health insurance system.

Camp Lejeune survivors have set-up several websites to help spread the word of contamination to other survivors and to advocate for them.

The STAND (www.watersurvivors.com) was established in 2000 by Terry Dyler who was nearly 2 when her family moved to Lejeune’s Tarawa Terrace, where they lived from 1958 to 1973. She and her two sisters all have had radical hysterectomies.  They are the only women in the family to have to undergo this procedure.  She said they suffered miscarriages, thyroid conditions, tumors, cysts, skin diseases, and asthma.  Terry continues to suffer from repeated bouts of bladder cancer.  Dyler’s father now dead was a civilian employee of the Marine Corps.  The Congressional bills do not provide any medical coverage or other compensation for civilian workers injured from Lejeune’s contaminated wells.

The Few, the Proud, The Forgotten (www.tftptf.com), is another Lejeune website.  One of the founders of this site is Jerry Ensminger who served nearly a quarter century in the Corps, and spent ten years at Camp Lejeune in the 1970s and 80s.  Ensminger said he didn’t learn about the contamination until the 90s.  It was then that he learned the death of Janey from leukemia, was linked to the contaminated well water at Lejeune.  Mike Partain, a dependent born on the base, another member, tracked down male breast cancer victims, an extremely rare form of cancer.  Partain discovered he had breast cancer at the very early age of 39.  A CNN story in 2009 on Lejeune’s male breast cancer helped to the identify over 50 Lejeune veterans with this disease.

Life After Camp Lejeune (www.lifeaftercamplejeune.com) is another website established by a veteran of the base.  John Hartung, a former Camp Lejeune Marine from Wisconsin, was awarded a 30% VA disability over illnesses contracted from the base’s toxic water. Hartung’s website is the latest attempt to use the internet as a resource for Lejeune veterans and dependents.

Two emails to The STAND from former Lejeune dependents who lived at Tarawa Terrace illustrate the serious health effects of exposure to toxic contaminants and the critical need for government health insurance (their last names are withheld at the families’ request):

Family Wiped-out

Monica, a former Navy dependent and resident of Tarawa Terrace said that: “I have just spent 8 days at Pitt Memorial from coughing up blood. I was diagnosed at age 18 with Hodgkin’s disease, I have had 4 pulmonary emboli, thyroid disease, skin problems, and even open heart surgery that went bad due to radiation therapy messing up my jugular vein wall. Now they think I have lung cancer or my Hodgkin’s is back. I go to the Leo Jenkins Cancer Center on April 15, 2010 to find out. I am only 49 and they last survivor of my family. My father was a Navy Corpsman that was stationed there from 1955 to his retirement due to bladder cancer in 1968.

We lived in TT for 2 years while my parents built their home in Swansboro. He had numerous cancer and health issues that plagued him throughout his life. My mother had 5 miscarriages between my 2 brothers and me. One brother committed suicide and the other is estranged from me but I was told he died or is dying of cancer that is throughout his body. My Father was one of the most highly decorated men in the Korean War, if you have ever heard of that. The government did not care about him or his family. Please help me if you can. I am not sure how much longer I have and do not know where to turn. I want to talk to congress and show them all my scars and let them tell me to my face they did not do this to me. I am sure there are millions of cases just like me.”

Monica said her husband was laid off in January and their COBRA payments are $1,000 per month. COBRA health insurance gives workers and their families who lose their health benefits the right to choose to continue group health benefits provided by their group health plan for limited periods of time under certain circumstances such as job loss.  Both Monica and her husband now work part-time jobs. If she is unable to work, then it will be impossible pay for COBRA at a time when she especially needs the coverage.

Husband Dead at 25, Daughter Stillborn

Candyce & George

Candyce, another resident of Tarawa Terrace, said that “My late husband George and I were and I were stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1970-1972. We lived at Tarawa Terrace.  There we conceived a daughter, Michelle. 

My pregnancy was normal until September 14, 1972, when our lives changed forever. Michelle was still born. The cause of death was intra uterine asphyxia, placental insufficiency.  No one had any answers to give us.  The nurse asked if we would like to see her. At first, I hesitated and then we decided we just had to see her.  When I held her in my arms, she looked like any sleeping baby.  She had a little round head and a button nose.  I checked her fingers and toes.  She was just perfect. 

Then they came to take her and there was nothing to do but cry.  It seems that’s all I did for the longest time.  They say ‘Time heals all wounds.’  But that’s not quite true.  You never get over the loss of a child.”

“We had two sons not conceived at Camp Lejeune…one is showing signs of the chemical effects as his oldest daughter.  Tragedy struck again when I was 5 months pregnant when our youngest son George was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia cancer of the blood and bone marrow (what they call a child’s disease).  He suffered terribly.  He received chemotherapy plus he had to endure tests on his bone marrow, which meant a needle inserted into his ribs to extract his bone marrow for testing.  On January 15, 1977, he died just five days before our youngest son turned one.  George was 25 years old. 

I now found myself a widow with two small children.  I was 23 years old.  When we went to make the funeral arrangements for George, I was horrified by the statement of the funeral director that George had ‘swelled up like a balloon and his face was terribly discolored.’  Something they had never seen in all the years they have been doing this.  It required a closed casket.  I felt like I never got a chance to say a real goodbye.  It broke my heart.”

“My health problems began in 1989.  It started with my back and I have been in excruciating pain ever since.  My medical history is long and complicated over the years I have suffered numerous ailments.  I have been diagnosed with fibromyalgia.  My other illnesses include failed back syndrome, which includes 3 failed back surgeries, a failed spinal column stimulator, daily migraine headaches, plus bone and muscle deterioration. 

I have two metal discs implanted into my back. This was designed to help the remaining three discs by relieving the pressure on them.  I also have two titanium screws fused into my spine.  I have been told by doctors that my medical condition will never improve and that eventually I will end up in a wheelchair.”

For Monica, Candyce and thousands of other Camp Lejeune victims, the need for medical care coverage is critical.  The unanswered question is whether the legislation will be passed in time before it’s too late.

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Robert O’Dowd served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings during 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. While at MCAS El Toro for two years, O'Dowd worked and slept in a Radium 226 contaminated work space in Hangar 296 in MWSG-37, the most industrialized and contaminated acreage on the base. Robert is a two time cancer survivor and disabled veteran. Robert graduated from Temple University in 1973 with a bachelor’s of business administration, majoring in accounting, and worked with a number of federal agencies, including the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Defense Logistics Agency. After retiring from the Department of Defense, he teamed up with Tim King of Salem-News.com to write about the environmental contamination at two Marine Corps bases (MCAS El Toro and MCB Camp Lejeune), the use of El Toro to ship weapons to the Contras and cocaine into the US on CIA proprietary aircraft, and the murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow and others who were a threat to blow the whistle on the illegal narcotrafficking activity. O'Dowd and King co-authored BETRAYAL: Toxic Exposure of U.S. Marines, Murder and Government Cover-Up. The book is available as a soft cover copy and eBook from Amazon.com. See: http://www.amazon.com/Betrayal-Exposure-Marines-Government-Cover-Up/dp/1502340003.