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The Fight Continues For Those Affected By Camp Lejeune
What about justice for the babies and children who died from poisoned water?
This week, I spoke with NBC News about the families who lost their babies at Camp Lejeune.
As many of you know, this North Carolina military base is considered one of the worst water contamination cases in the U.S., and I’ve been working with those impacted for years.
Back in the 1990s, The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a federal public health agency, completed a public health assessment (PHA) of drinking water at the base and concluded that the people living and working at the base were exposed to “contaminants of concern” in their drinking water from 1953 through 1987.
Those chemicals included trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), dichloroethylene (DCE), vinyl chloride, and benzene.
An estimated one million people lived or worked on the base during that time and were exposed to the contaminated water.
But it takes time to see the effects of toxic exposure on people. Many chemicals have latency periods of 10, 20, or 30-plus years.
TCE, one of the chemicals found at alarming levels at Camp Lejeune, is known to have a latency period of 20 years or more.
Most people get exposed to TCE by consuming contaminated drinking water. The water is contaminated from some combination of industry discharge/spills and existing hazardous-waste sites.
TCE breaks down slowly and can move through soil to find its way into drinking water sources. It was added to the list of substances known to cause cancer in the “14th Report on Carcinogens” released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in November 2016.
TCE and its health effects made the cover of Newsweek in 2014 because it was one of the top pollutants at Camp Lejeune. It was found in the drinking water of the 240-square-mile base as part of what was described as “a toxic cocktail of industrial solvents, dry-cleaning chemicals and gas.”
Miscarriage, Stillbirths & Birth Defects
Earlier this month, the Justice Department announced a streamlined application process for those exposed to toxic water at the Marine Corps base to receive financial settlements from the government.
The new process is an effort to speed up the pace of resolving more than 93,000 civil claims by Marines, their families and civilian employees, as part of the 2022 PACT Act, a law that expanded health care and benefits for Veterans exposed to burn pits, Agent Orange, and other toxic substances.
The Camp Lejeune Justice Act allows victims to pursue litigation against the government if they could prove they were at the base for at least 30 days during the contamination timeframe and that the exposure to the tainted water likely caused their health issues.
These settlement offers range from $100,000 to $550,000, based on specific diseases and the duration of time spent at Camp Lejeune. Miscarriage and female infertility cases are not eligible for the elective settlement.
For most of these case, especially those related to adverse birth outcomes, it’s been challenging, and sometimes impossible, to retrieve necessary medical records to prove the arguments from so far back, the attorneys said.
“They had to wait 30, 40 years to file a claim. It wasn’t their fault that delay of time has caused the absence of records,” said Ed Bell, the court-appointed lead counsel for Camp Lejeune plaintiffs. About 500 people who Bell represents have experienced miscarriage, stillbirths and birth defects, his firm said.
So many babies born at Camp Lejeune in the ’60s and ’70s died that a nearby cemetery had a section that parents called “Baby Heaven.”
Children were born without craniums and with neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly (a condition where part of the brain or skull is missing). Many died of leukemia and lymphoma.
Any walk around a cemetery is somber but when you see stones that list names with only one year beneath them, the realization hits home of how many young children died on that base within their first year of life.
Scientists believe that the exposure to toxic water can have impact a pregnancy.
A pregnant woman would not need to be exposed to the poisoned water for a long period of time to develop birth defects, including neural tube defects, clefts, and low-birth weight, according to Frank Bove, a senior epidemiologist who led the ATSDR’s investigation of the base’s contamination.
“You don’t need a long-term exposure,” he told NBC News. “It could be days or weeks.”
Birth defects can occur during any stage of pregnancy, with most occurring in the first three months when the baby’s organs are still forming, according to the CDC. Some occur during the last six months of pregnancy, as the tissues and organs continue to grow, the agency said.
But the issue for many is the lack of records from that time. Miscarriages were not necessarily documented in the same ways as still births or other issues at that time.
Camp Lejeune closed most of the contaminated water wells in 1985—that’s five years after they first discovered the pollution. Documents suggest that leadership was slow to respond when water tests showed evidence of contamination.
The base was declared a Superfund site in 1989. It took another 24 years with help from Congress to inform veterans and their families about the contamination and its health risks.
Health problems associated with drinking water containing unsafe levels of TCE include liver issues and increased risk of cancer. In a toxicological review of TCE, the EPA found that it is “carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure” based on evidence of a causal association between TCE exposure and kidney cancer.
Both human and animal data show this chemical can affect the kidney, liver, immune system, male reproductive system, and a developing fetus, according to ATSDR, and it’s also associated with increased rates of childhood leukemia.
With less than a year left to file claims, the Navy has received more than 93,000 Camp Lejeune Justice Act claims but has settled none, according to officials. More than 1,100 cases have been filed in the North Carolina federal court system, which will likely take years to settle.
As much as I hate writing about such sad stories, it’s important to document what happened and continue to fight for victims who had no say over the water provided to them. We must never forget what happened and continue to keep our government accountable.
Our servicemen and -women work to protect our freedoms, maintain peace, and support U.S. policy throughout the world, often in dangerous, intense, and challenging situations.
These individuals are held to a high level of self-discipline and maintain a dedication to excellence. Sadly, the agency that oversees these service members has not upheld those same standards. Every day military families write to me about contamination on military bases, and too many of them are suffering from related health issues.
These Americans sacrificed to protect and defend our country, and we need to take care of them. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their health in the years after their service is complete.
Did you know about the babies at Camp Lejeune? Let us know in the comments below. And add any questions you have about the settlements.