Connecting The Dots To Cancer


Marine veteran and cancer survivor  discovers link to former MCAS El Toro.

(SOMERDALE, NJ) – Semper Fidelis is not just an empty slogan or a recruiting gimmick to entice young men and women to join the Marines. The Marine Corps is a brotherhood. Once a Marine; always a Marine.

The traditions of the Corps are drummed into Marine recruits in boot camp and reinforced in tours of duty in and out of combat. As Marines, none of us ever anticipated exposures to toxic chemicals and radiation could be as deadly as getting hit with an automatic burst from an AK-47.

BETRAYAL tells the story of the thousands of veterans and their families, once stationed at MCAS El Toro, CA, and Camp Lejeune, NC.

Both Marine Corps bases are among the 130 military installations listed as EPA Superfunds, a group of the most environmentally hazardous sites in the U.S.

Like most of the other military installations on the EPA Superfund database, El Toro Marines and dependents continue to be ignored by the U.S. government. No government agency is interested in the health effects of toxic chemical exposure at the once premier Marine Corps jet fighter base.  Veterans’ requests for occupational risk assessments by the Navy were denied.

There are no Purple Hearts for cancers from toxic chemical and radiation.  Like the Vietnam veterans who die from Agent Orange, none of our names will ever appear on a memorial wall.


Tim King, founder and editor of, didn’t get involved in writing about El Toro until he was researching a news story on Camp Lejeune. A Lejeune dependent told him about my website on El Toro.  Tim was shocked to learn that El Toro was an EPA Superfund site, one of the most hazardous waste sites in the country.  We exchanged emails and telephone calls and Tim invited me to join the staff of reporters.

Since 2008, published over 100 news stories covering the environmental contamination at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro, CA, and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, NC under the banner, “Are Marines Getting the Shaft in America?”  This is a true story; one that as former Marines, we take no pleasure in telling.

Tim King and I were both stationed at El Toro in the MWSG-37 (the Marine Wing Service Group 37 redesignated the Marine Wing Support Group 37 on April 1, 1967).  Tim worked as an aircraft refueler in the 1980s while I worked in Wing Supply Support Division in Hangar 296 in the 1960s.  After the Corps, we lived and worked on opposite coasts.

As an aircraft refueler at El Toro in the 1980s, Tim King remembers wading into a JP-5 fuel bladder without protective clothing and face masks as part of a crew ordered to seal the leak.  One of the Marines working this detail skin turned green for days.  For years, Tim had undiagnosed stomach pains at El Toro that disappeared when he left the Corps.

Before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring generated a public outcry over widespread use of DDT and its effects on the environment and people, leading to the 1972 U.S. ban and its worldwide ban under the Stockholm Convention, I got to inhale lots of DDT at El Toro in the 1960s. DDT was used as an agricultural insecticide on the base and on the Irvine Company’s fields surrounding the base.  I remember trying to outrun the white clouds of DDT spread from trucks, usually in the early morning or before sunset.  You could try to outrun it, but most of the time it didn’t work.  You couldn’t avoid inhaling DDT, coughing your guts out and gasping for clean air.


My first clue that I may have been exposed to toxic chemicals was in 1987.  In July 1987, while waiting to go into the operating room for prostate surgery, I was lying on a gurney when the room started to spin.  Just before losing conscientious, I managed to yell to two doctors a few feet away, “I’m going out!”

I woke-up in the OR with an oxygen mask on, and my urologist telling me, “You had a seizure”.  I remember the anesthesiologist, standing next to my doctor, telling him that the prostate operation was cancelled until a neurological work-up could be done.

I don’t remember the tests, but I don’t think they were painful. I remember the neurologist asked me, “Do you work in a chemical plant?”  I told him, “No.”  I had not worked in or near a chemical plant, worked as an auditor and accountant with the Federal government and had not been exposed to chemicals. In the Marines, my TDY orders to Vietnam were cancelled at the last moment so I had no exposure to Agent Orange.  I don’t think he believed me. He said that my seizure and symptoms were similar to someone who had been exposed to toxic chemicals. I forgot about the neurologist; the prostate surgery was rescheduled and I moved on with my life.

I didn’t remember the neurologist’s questions and comments until almost 20 years later when I ran across a law firm advertising for clients who may have been injured from MCAS El Toro’s Trichloroethylene (TCE) plume.  I had been surfing the web.  This was not a case of serendipity.  El Toro was a Superfund site and the base had been closed since 1999.  This was like something like learning that your parents never told you that you were adopted.

I followed-up with a telephone call to the law firm.  The conversation ended abruptly when I told the law firm’s contact person that I was a veteran.

It wasn’t until much later that I learned that law firms were not interested in veterans since the Supreme Court’s Feres Doctrine prevented a veteran from filing a Federal tort claim.  Veterans were limited to filing a disability and compensation claim with the Veterans Administration.

I had worked for the EPA Inspector General in the 1970s and knew that Superfund sites were among the most hazardous places in the country. I had just recovered from surgery and chemotherapy for bladder cancer, didn’t smoke, and there’s no family history of bladder cancer in the family.

The internet provided access to EPA reports on El Toro. These reports showed that the primary source of the TCE plume spreading miles off the base into Orange County and for me the ‘pièce de résistance’ was Hangar 296; the hangar I worked and slept in on duty watch in the 1960s.

It didn’t take too much research before I learned that bladder cancer can be caused by exposure to TCE or radiation and that prostate growth is linked to hyperprolactinemia organic solvent exposure and radiation.  No one in my family history had any of these medical conditions.  In 1999, years after discharge from the Marines, a blood test showed I had hyperprolactinemia; an MRI showed moderate to advanced small vessels disease of the brain, brain atrophy, and evidence of silent strokes. I was now at a high risk for strokes and dementia.

After a little more digging, I discovered that my administrative work space and duty sleeping quarters in the upper North mezzanine of El Toro’s Hangar 296 was contaminated with radiation from a Radium 226 (Ra 226) paint room.  An epidemiologist said that radon, a decay product of Ra 226, could have passed directly to my brain via the olfactory channels.  It then deposited its heavy metal decay products, radioactive forms of lead, bismuth and polonium in the delicate brain tissues and blood vessels in nanometer size particles, causing irreversible brain damage.  I now shared a common link to Gulf War veterans exposed to DU aerosol.

In 2008, I filed a compensation and disability claim with the VA.  The VA agreed that my bladder cancer and hyperprolactinemia were at least as likely as not due to military service at MCAS El Toro, assigning a 20% disability rating for the cancer now in remission and 0% for hyperprolactinemia since it was under control with medication.  When asked by the VA’s examining physician of any secondary effects of hyperprolactinemia, I didn’t know of any, but I’m not a physician.  Several years later, I learned my hyperprolactinemia was more likely than not the cause of several other medical conditions, including prostate growth, several prostate transurethral resections and sterility at age 44.

The TCE plume cut a path right through the base wells into the Orange County aquifer. Were the wells contaminated?  Did Marines drink and shower in contaminated well water?  I had lots of questions but not many answers.  And, some of the answers were anything but reassuring.

A toxicologist at The Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR) told me that if El Toro’s base wells were contaminated, then inhalation of contaminants during hot showers and dermal contact from working with the chemical would be other routes of exposure.  ATSDR is a Federal government agency responsible for scientific assessment of health hazards at EPA Superfund sites like MCAS El Toro.

ATSDR’s website lists three routes of exposure to toxic chemicals: breathing [inhalation], eating or drinking [ingestion], or contact with the skin [dermal contact.[1]

I followed-up with a hot line inquiry to the EPA Inspector General, calls to EPA Region 9 in San Francisco and the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Southwest in San Diego.

Both EPA and the Navy assured me there was no need for concern about the base wells since they drew water from the uncontaminated aquifer under the base and El Toro had purchase municipal water in 1951 from The Metropolitan Water District. This early contract was superseded with a municipal water services contract with The Irvine Ranch Water District in 1969.  No need to worry about the water sounded like great news to me.


But the facts pointed in a different direction. Our investigation found that neither the Navy nor EPA knew the dates when the base wells were abandoned; a Navy contractor reported a well screen interval—the point that water and contaminants first enter a well—opened in the contaminated aquifer; all the base wells were constructed during WW II so other wells may have followed a similar construction pattern; the wells were sealed in concrete and no other wells were inspected for the locations of the well screen intervals; all the original well construction drawings, which show the locations of the well screens are missing; over 40 years of water distribution engineering drawings are missing; the only complete sets of water distribution engineering drawings were from 1986 and 1942 (the original drawings); the base’s well pumping records are inaccurate, cut-off six months before the initial purchase of municipal water; the early purchase of softened municipal water was not enough to allow El Toro to abandon its wells and may have been done to reduce the corrosive effects of hard well water. This didn’t mean that the base wells were contaminated but the quantity of missing documentation was a red flag.

The failure to follow-up on inspection of all wells for the locations of their well screens by a professional Navy engineering staff suggests negligence or a deliberate cover-up.

There was no regulatory requirement for the Navy to inspect well screens but once an inspection confirmed well screens opened in the contaminated aquifer, the Navy had no choice but to continue the inspections before sealing all the wells in concrete.  With a major TCE plume cutting a path right through the base wells, well screens opened in the contaminated aquifer would have allowed some level of contamination in the water distribution system.  Marines, dependents and civilian worker who consumed this water have a need to know that they may have been exposed to dangerous chemicals.

The delay in the onset of cancers could take decades and be almost impossible to trace to military service.  This was not a ‘pretty picture’ and not one that any of us envisioned when taking the oath of enlistment.  Marines who had direct contact with toxic chemicals like TCE without the protection of face masks and protective clothing were at risk for toxic exposure and serious health effects, including cancers. Others—both Marines and their dependents—who drank, cooked and showered may have been exposed to contaminated water.

Why didn’t the Marine Corps or the Navy notify El Toro veterans that they may have been exposed to toxic chemicals?  I didn’t like it but the answer was that with one exception there was no requirement for the government to notify any veteran or dependent of their possible exposure to contaminants at any the 130 military installations on the NPL (EPA Superfund).  The one exception was Camp Lejeune.

Senator Elizabeth Dole was instrumental in requiring the Navy and Marine Corps to notify residents who may have been exposed to contaminated water at the Camp Lejeune. An amendment introduced by Senator Dole and signed into law in the 2007 Defense Authorization Act required the Secretary of the Navy to notify those who may have been affected by Camp Lejeune’s contaminated wells. Southern California had no equivalent to Senator Dole.  No Congressional representative pushed the Navy to notify El Toro’s veterans of their possible exposure to toxic chemicals.

There are risks inherent with living and working on a Superfund site that are not normally found elsewhere and veterans and their medical care providers need to know the risks and the health effects of exposure to contaminants.


In early January 2008, I decided that I would do my best to give a ‘heads-up’ to other El Toro veterans and dependents via the internet.  Absent legislation similar to Senator Dole’s requirement, it was painfully obvious that the government was not interested in alerting any veteran or dependent or civilian employees.  Dependents and civilian employees could file tort claims for injuries and it was easy to see why no government bureaucrat wanted to be tagged as the source of Federal tort claims.  Maybe the Marine Corps Commandant could help.

I wrote to General James T. Conway, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps, requesting his assistance in notifying Marines of their possible exposure to toxic chemicals at MCAS El Toro.  The base was on the EPA Superfund list as far back as 1990 with 25 contaminated sites.  Marines may have been exposed to toxic chemicals through ingestion in the well water, dermal contact and/or inhalations became seriously ill and have no idea of what hit them. While there was no legal requirement for the Marine Corps to notify El Toro Marines, the “Once a Marine; always a Marine” is a time honored commitment of one Marine to another:

January 14, 2008 

Dear General Conway: 

The purpose of this letter is to request your assistance in notifying Marines (and their families) formerly assigned to MCAS El Toro of their potential exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s). 

MCAS El Toro was on the EPA Superfund list as far back as 1990 and some 25 contaminated sites were eventually found on the base. El Toro was officially closed in 1999. 

EPA identified twenty-five contaminated sites at El Toro. Site 24, the 200 acres occupied by MWSG-37, had extensive TCE/PCE contamination of the soil and the groundwater. 

The Navy successfully cleaned-up most of the contamination, selling much of the land at a public auction in 2005 for over $600 million. There was, however, no attempt to notify former Marines of their potential exposure to TCE/PCE, especially those Marines attached to MWSG-37 that came into contact with these toxic chemicals in the course of their duties. 

The Marine Corps has a proud record of “taking care of its own.” MCAS El Toro was commissioned in 1943. Thousands of Marines were stationed at El Toro over the fifty-six years of its operations. 

TCE/PCE contamination also occurred at Camp Lejeune from an off station source. The Marine Corps established an internet site for individuals who worked at Camp Lejeune and may have been exposed to contaminated TCE drinking water. 

Both Camp Lejeune and former MCAS El Toro were on the EPA Superfund list. Both bases were contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and other toxic chemicals (VOC’s). EPA reported that the drinking water at El Toro was not contaminated, but the soil and groundwater of one air group at El Toro was highly contaminated and the base had multiple contaminated sites. 

At El Toro, an unknown number of Marines and civilian workers may have been exposed to TCE/PCE through dermal contact and/or inhalation, became seriously ill and have no idea of what hit them. 

While there is no legal requirement for the Marine Corps to notify Marine veterans of possible exposure to chemical toxins like TCE and PCE, there is a moral responsibility to do so. 

“Once a Marine; always a Marine” is a time honored commitment of one Marine to another. 

Marines who live outside of Orange County, California, most likely have no idea of the pollution of former MCAS El Toro. Some actions the Marine Corps can take to remedy this are: 

(1) Establish a website (similar to Camp Lejeune’s Water Survey Study) to register and inform Marines of the MCAS El Toro contamination issues and the possible health affects of such exposure; 

(2) Request the various Veteran Service Organizations to notify their membership of the former MCAS El Toro’s Superfund status, closure, eventual sale, and provide them with a website for Marines to access for more information; 

(3) Issue an appropriate press release; and 

(4) Use Public Service announcements to get the word out to Marines who don’t have access to the internet or belong to a VSO. 

I’m proud of my service in the Corps and know that I can count of your support and leadership to do the right thing. 

No reply was received from General Conway or anyone in the Corps.

The Marine Corps could easily include a paragraph or two about El Toro with a link to the EPA Superfund database on their excellent website, publish an article in Leatherneck or ask the Marine Corps League to notify its membership.  We were on our own.

[1] ATSDR routes of exposure to toxic substances:  See ATSDR’s Glossary of Terms at


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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 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 See: