Marines, Families Exposed to Tainted Water for 30 Years

Wednesday, June 13, 2007 at 08:34 PM

On Tuesday, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reported its analysis of the drinking water system in some of the military housing areas on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina: people living in those areas have been exposed to high levels of tetrachloroethylene from 1957 through 1987.

An excerpt from the ATSDR press release on the analysis:
...former Marines and their families who lived in Tarawa Terrace family housing units during the period November 1957 through February 1987, received drinking water contaminated with tetrachloroethylene (PCE). The contaminated drinking water exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) maximum contaminant level of 5 micrograms per liter; the maximum concentration of PCE in the Tarawa Terrace drinking water was estimated to be about 200 micrograms per liter.


ATSDR estimates as many as 75,000 former Tarawa Terrace residents lived in the family housing during the period November 1957 through February 1987. On average, families lived in base housing for about 2 years.

PCE is used as a dry cleaning solvent. The PCE contamination occurred because the solvent leaked into the Tarawa Terrace drinking water system from an off-base dry-cleaner. In 1987, the Tarawa Terrace water treatment plant was disconnected from the base's drinking water supply system because of contamination from the off-base dry-cleaning establishment.

PCE is a volatile organic compound (VOC). The Department of Health and Human Services has determined that PCE may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen. PCE is widely used for dry cleaning of fabrics; clothes brought home from the dry cleaners release small amounts of PCE into the air.

The analyses of the Tarawa Terrace drinking water system is part of ATSDR’s epidemiological study of VOCs at Camp Lejeune. The study will focus on babies born during the period 1968-1985 up to the time that they were 1 year-old.

Some scientific literature has associated VOCs with birth defects and childhood cancers. ATSDR’s study may provide further evidence that exposure to VOC-contaminated drinking water may be related to specific birth defects and childhood cancers, such as spina bifida, anencephaly, cleft lip, cleft palate, leukemia and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Former Camp Lejeune Marines and their families, who resided in family housing at the base, are encouraged to get routine physicals and monitor their health for any changes.

That's one of the chemicals that contaminated the infamous Love Canal in upstate NY. The same day that the study was reported to the public, the House Energy & Commerce Committee held a subcommittee hearing on the pollution at Camp Lejeune. Here's an excerpt from the statement of Congressman John Dingell, posted on the Committee's web site:
...Although the drinking water contamination happened decades ago, the victims of that contamination continue to suffer both physically and emotionally.

They suffer the ill effects of exposure to the toxic water; they suffer watching their children become sick and die; they suffer waiting for decades for scientific studies; and they suffer from the apparent penny-pinching and indifference of their formerly revered commands, the U.S. Marine Corps and Department of Navy.

It is hard to believe that, to this day, former Marines and their families have not been notified that the water they drank at Camp Lejeune was carcinogenic—a fact that our Government has known for decades.

Indeed, the witnesses on our first panel—Retired Master Gunnery Sergeant Jerry Ensminger, Dr. Michael Gros, and Mr. Jeff Byron—each served at Camp Lejeune and, along with their families, consumed poisoned drinking water for years. Yet they did not learn of the contamination until 1997, 1999, and 2000, respectively.

Unfortunately, in the course of conducting our inquiry, we have learned that [EPA's Criminal Investigation Division] CID may not have the resources or leadership to do its job. I am particularly concerned over reports that many CID agents are being used as drivers and personal bodyguards for the Administrator rather than investigating important environmental crimes, or have been assigned homeland security work that duplicates what the FBI is already doing.

These are but a few of the troubling things being reported to us, Mr. Chairman, and I hope you will consider looking further into the operations and management of this important program.

Finally, I welcome our distinguished Department of Navy and Marine Corps officials. I sincerely hope these officials can explain some of the very troubling evidence that this Committee has reviewed:

  • Evidence that the Navy balked at funding health impact studies—despite statutory requirements that Department of Defense fund such studies
  • Evidence that the Marine Corps delayed initiating these studies over concerns about bad publicity
  • Evidence that the Marine Corps repeatedly failed to produce documents necessary for the health impact studies; and
  • Evidence that the Navy failed for years to close down a contaminated drinking water system despite knowledge of contamination
The Marine Corps takes great pride in its maxim, “Marines take care of their own.” But if this principle is to be anything but an empty slogan, the Corps needs to do more to notify all former Camp Lejeune residents about their possible exposure, and provide prompt and adequate medical coverage to them and their families.
Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is a nasty little toxin. The ATSDR has a fact sheet on it which includes the following:
How likely is tetrachloroethylene to cause cancer?

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) has determined that tetrachloroethylene may reasonably be anticipated to be a carcinogen. Tetrachloroethylene has been shown to cause liver tumors in mice and kidney tumors in male rats.

Worse, the gestation period between exposure and diagnosis of cancer can be very long.

Nor is cancer the only disease that may result from PCE exposure:

Results of animal studies, conducted with amounts much higher than those that most people are exposed to, show that tetrachloroethylene can cause liver and kidney damage. Exposure to very high levels of tetrachloroethylene can be toxic to the unborn pups of pregnant rats and mice. Changes in behavior were observed in the offspring of rats that breathed high levels of the chemical while they were pregnant.
I won't belabor the obvious point that this entire episode, commencing from when the toxin was first suspected or identified, is a pretty good indication of how well we really support our troops in the day to day matters that determine the quality of life that the troops and their families experience. Once again it is evident that, as always, any bureaucracy will consider its own interests to be far more important than the interests of individuals serving within that bureaucracy. And once again it is obvious that "supporting our troops" is a difficult and complex task that requires real effort and real attention, not just the perfunctory attachment of a magnetic message to your vehicle.

And while I'm at it, let me point out that our beloved Congress--the "good guy" in the Camp Lejeune story--appears to be falling down on yet another chance to really support our troops and their families: protecting them from predatory "payday lenders" that thrive in military towns across the country. On the same day that the House Committee held its hearings, a group of consumer advocate organizations issued a press release urging the Department of Defense to:

...make significant changes to proposed federal regulations to ensure that predatory lenders can no longer strip earnings from U.S. soldiers and their families. As written, the regulations will leave loopholes large enough for payday, auto title and other predatory lenders to glide through, letting them gouge military borrowers without regard for a pending 36 percent interest rate cap...

Congress passed the 36 percent cap on consumer loans to military borrowers last fall after the Pentagon documented the devastating impact predatory lending is having on troop morale and combat readiness. The law exempts only residential mortgages and loans to purchase personal property. Congress charged the Department of Defense with writing rules that would implement the cap and other financial protections for military borrowers included in the Military Lending Act, also known as the Talent/Nelson Amendment. But the consumer groups say the proposed rules leave many predatory products untouched.

“The Pentagon has worked hard to get protections in place before the date the law takes effect, and we appreciate their commitment. But these rules end up giving predatory lenders leave to raid the personal funds of the troops,” said Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America (CFA). “This industry knows how to get around even the tightest of regulations. They will have no problem with the narrow definitions in the Pentagon’s proposed rules.”

In a statement introducing the proposed rules, the Pentagon acknowledged that payday loans and similar products have two problems: exorbitant interest rates of 400 percent and higher, and a built-in structure that compels borrowers to renew an expensive short-term loan many times because they cannot afford to pay it off. The typical payday borrower pays back nearly $800 for a $325 loan.

Banks and other financial institutions argued strongly for an exemption for their products. The Pentagon’s rules limit the law to payday, auto title and refund anticipation loans, and defined those so narrowly that many similarly structured high-cost products already on the market will not be subject to the 36 percent cap. For example, the proposed rules would not stop any predatory car title lending in Virginia, and would not stop payday-like products by banks.

The proposed rules would not apply at all to military installment lenders who refinance loans at high fees with little benefit to the borrower. In the Pentagon’s own predatory lending report to Congress last year, they raised specific concerns about military installment lenders’ high interest rates and unfair terms.

In public comments on the proposed rules, CFA, the Center for Responsible Lending, the National Consumer Law Center, Consumers Union, and the National Association of Consumer Advocates called on the Pentagon to rewrite the rules to make the 36 percent cap meaningful by the October 1 implementation date if possible, and if not by that date, to take advantage of the extension Congress provided for in the Military Lending Act. Congress gave the Pentagon nine months after the October 1 implementation to refine the rules.

If the DoD can't come up with meaningful protection of military members from these lenders, Congress certainly ought to have the good sense to make sure that the final regulations serve their original protective purpose.


One would naturally believe that our government is concerned about the health and well being of our citizens and especially those who serve our country. Unfortunately this is often false. Our drinking water contains many man made toxic chemicals that in combination or alone are responsible for disease and death. Drinking water standards are`totally inadequate and our government should realize this. Eleven reports have been issued to Congress and the Senate during the last 15 years listing about 250 carcinogens or suspected carcinogens many of which contaminate drinking water. In total over 75,000 toxic man made chemicals are produced in the USA and thousands now contaminate drinking water. We are all exposed to toxic drinking water without awareness. Our government fails to inform us of the toxic water crisis. Inform yourself and take appropriate action. My book,"A Drinker's Guide to Pure Water-Is our Water Safe?" presents information and action recommendations to protect yourself and loved ones from toxic water.

I think everyone is exposed to some chemicals in their water regardless of what the water company may say. Most water companies test routinely for some thirty different chemicals but the reality is there are thousands of who knows what in the ground water. For years people have been dumping anti freeze in the back yard, along with oil paint and thinners , detergent, degreasers etc and that is only the homeowner. Who knows what where and how much chemicals may have been dumped years ago by corporations who did not care or know any better? Unless you have something specific to test for many chemicals are probably in your drinking water and causing all sorts of problems that people are unaware of.

I lived in Tarawa Terrace for 4 years. I lost a baby while there. I know it was due to the water. I ALWAYS complained about the taste and smell of the water while we were there (1983-87).