According to federal health officials, military personnel who were stationed at Camp Lejeune between 1975 and 1985 were found to have at least a 20% higher risk of developing a number of cancers as compared to those stationed elsewhere. The officials have released a long-awaited study on the contaminated drinking water at the North Carolina base. This research is considered as one of the largest ever conducted in the United States to assess cancer risk by comparing a group who lived and worked in a polluted environment to a similar group that did not. The study found that military personnel at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune had a higher risk of developing some types of leukemia, lymphoma, and cancers of the lung, breast, throat, esophagus, and thyroid. Additionally, civilians who worked at the base were also found to be at a higher risk of developing a shorter list of cancers.
The study is “quite impressive,” but it cannot be considered as final proof that the contaminated drinking water caused cancers, as stated by David Savitz, a Brown University disease researcher consulting for plaintiffs’ lawyers in Camp Lejeune-related lawsuits.
“This is not something we’re going to be able to resolve definitively,” he said. “We are talking about exposures that happened (decades ago) that were not well documented.” Savitz noted that the new research will add weight to arguments made on behalf of people who got sick after living and working at the base.
Camp Lejeune is a military base built in the early 1940s in a sandy pine forest along the North Carolina coast. Unfortunately, its drinking water became contaminated with industrial solvents from the early 1950s to 1985, which was detected in the early 1980s. The contamination resulted from a poorly maintained fuel depot, indiscriminate dumping on the base, and an off-base dry cleaner. Before the wells were shut down, the contaminated water was piped to barracks, offices, housing for enlisted families, schools, and the base’s hospital. Military personnel and families drank, cooked, and bathed with the contaminated water.
Numerous law firms have been actively seeking clients affected by contamination caused by cancer-causing chemicals at Camp Lejeune. Those who became ill after being at the camp have accused the Marine Corps of not prioritizing the health of its personnel, while also criticizing the government for not investigating the matter promptly. However, Marine Corps officials have maintained that federal environmental regulations for those chemicals were not established until 1989 after the wells had already been closed.
The ATSDR, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, is a sister agency of the CDC, based in Atlanta. The ATSDR has conducted around half a dozen studies focusing on people’s health issues at Camp Lejeune. The earlier studies had varied focuses, such as birth defects in children born to base personnel and male breast cancer rates. Although the previous studies pointed out health risks, the new study has established the scope more thoroughly, according to Richard Clapp, an emeritus public health professor at Boston University, who has been involved in previous research on Camp Lejeune.
Dr. Aaron Bernstein, head of the ATSDR and CDC’s environmental health programs, called the new study “remarkable” for being more rigorous and comprehensive than the previous research.
The ATSDR conducted a new research paper on cancer in a group of approximately 211,000 individuals who were stationed or worked at Camp Lejeune between 1975 and 1985. They compared this group to another group of roughly 224,000 people at Camp Pendleton in California during the same timeframe, which was known to have clean groundwater. The study aimed to discover any potential links between cancer and the polluted groundwater at Camp Lejeune.
Frank Bove, a senior epidemiologist, has led the research on Camp Lejeune for many years. He was in charge of the latest study, during which he relied on staff from Battelle Memorial Institute and others to go through cancer registries across the country looking for cases linked to the base. They found a similar number of malignant cancers in each group, which was around 12,000. However, the numbers and the relative risks calculated from those numbers were higher in the Camp Lejeune population for a number of specific types of cancer, including some that were not clearly identified in earlier studies, most notably thyroid cancer, according to Clapp.
In August 2022, President Joe Biden signed a federal law called the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021. It included language to address concerns of people who developed certain health problems that they believed were tied to Camp Lejeune water contamination. This law gave them a two-year window to file claims. The new study may result in the inclusion of thyroid cancer to be added to the list of diseases for which Camp Lejeune personnel and their families might one day be compensated, as stated by Clapp.
The agency officials said that the paper, subjected to extensive external peer review, is being submitted for publication.