WASHINGTON — Federal health officials continue to uncover excessive levels of previous water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. A new study of the North Carolina base’s main water system that was released Friday demonstrates a rapidly increasing level of human carcinogens in the drinking water starting as early as 1948 and peaking in the mid-1980s.
“These are highest levels of drinking water contamination in this country that I’m aware of,” said Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who’s studied the findings.
As many as 1 million Marine veterans and family members may have been exposed to poisoned drinking water. Medical experts have linked the contamination to cancer, birth defects, childhood leukemia and other diseases. The levels of human carcinogens such as trichloroethylene in the water systems were more than 150 times higher than what’s considered safe.
“The most likely date that TCE first exceeded its current (maximum contaminant level) is during August 1953; however, this exceedance could have been as early as November 1948,” says the report, by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The study looked at contaminant concentrations at water supply wells and drinking water at the Hadnot Point and Holcomb Boulevard water systems at Camp Lejeune. The Hadnot Point system supplied the barracks where the majority of the Marines lived, said Marine veterans who lived on the base.
In January, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry determined that water contamination at Camp Lejeune had exceeded safe levels as far back as August 1953, four years earlier than previous findings.
Those findings were expected to expand the eligibility of veterans and family members for health benefits under the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, according to Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who introduced the legislation. Friday’s results might expand the group even further.
Burr and Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., who also sponsored a bill for veterans’ families, said in a joint statement Friday that they’d work to determine how to help veterans and their families.
“Today’s report reveals the unfortunate truth that the water contamination at Camp Lejeune was far worse than many thought,” the statement said. “It is even more clear that Congress must immediately do all it can to help our veterans, their families and all affected by this tragedy to get the care, treatment, answers and understanding they’ve deserved for far too long.”
Citing findings that contaminants may have been in the water five years earlier than previously thought, Dingell called for additional congressional hearings to ensure that remaining studies of the contamination were “done thoroughly, promptly and without outside interference.”
Scientists say the agency’s study will be used to help examine patterns of a wide range of cancers, including breast cancer and kidney cancer. It also may be used as a guide to study reproductive problems and neurological diseases such as Parkinson’s.
“This reinforces what I always viewed as being the major point here, and that is the levels that existed in the drinking water were astoundingly high, and I’d be very concerned for the health of people who were exposed,” said Gerald A. LeBlanc, a professor who’s the head of the department of environmental and molecular toxicology at North Carolina State University.
The Marine Corps said the chemicals found in the drinking water were solvents commonly used to clean machinery and weapons or for dry cleaning, or those found in fuels. While the Marine Corps said last year that there was insufficient evidence to prove that illnesses were related to service at Camp Lejeune, officials called the agency study Friday a major milestone toward providing scientific evidence for the health questions raised.
Advocates for the veterans’ families say Marines no longer can deny responsibility. Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant from North Carolina who’s helped lead a fight against the Marines over the contamination, said the truth was finally coming out.
“This is vindication and verification of what I’ve been saying for nearly 16 years,” said Ensminger, who was stationed at Lejeune and whose daughter died of a rare form of leukemia in 1985 at age 9. “I’ve had to be aggressive to make sure this happened. A lot of people have called me bullheaded and some other choice words. I’m under no illusion that had I not taken such a strong stance on this in the 1990s that we would not be anywhere close to where we are now.”