WASHINGTON – On Tuesday, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released an extensive study that finds increased cancer risks for civilian and military personnel at North Carolina’s Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, linked to toxic drinking water at the site.
It’s one of the largest cancer incidence cohort studies in the U.S., with researchers leveraging decades of data to shed light on the profound health consequences of years of exposure to trichloroethylene, or TCE, and other chemicals that contaminated the base’s drinking water for more than years, from 1953 to 1987.
The purpose of the study was to determine if being stationed or employed at Camp Lejeune between 1972 and 1985 increased the risk of cancer incidence when compared to being stationed or employed at Camp Pendleton in California. Camp Pendleton was not known to have contaminated drinking water prior to 1986.
“These alarming cancer findings will keep me up at night,” said Jared Hayes, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group. “The shocking rates of cancer among service members and civilians, a direct consequence of exposure to harmful chemicals on military bases, is nothing short of an outrage. It's an appalling situation where service members and civilians are now grappling with illness as payment for their dedication to duty.”
For three decades at Camp Lejeune, an estimated one million servicemen and women, their families and civilian workers were exposed through the base’s tap water to chemicals known to cause cancer. The families living in base housing that received contaminated drinking water may have had exposure durations that were longer than most Marines and Navy personnel on base.
Drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with TCE and industrial solvents like vinyl chloride and benzene – all classified as known human carcinogens by the Environmental Protection Agency.
TCE is a volatile, colorless and cancer-causing chemical used mostly in industrial and commercial processes, for instance, as a solvent in industrial cleaning and degreasing.
The chemical contaminates soil, groundwater and air. People are also exposed to TCE by breathing in its vapors or through skin contact. Exposure to TCE is linked to cancer, as well as developmental and reproductive harms.
TCE’s long, infamous history was featured in the 1995 blockbuster book and film “A Civil Action,” starring John Travolta – the true story of a legal fight over companies contaminating an aquifer with TCE, harming the health of people living nearby.
“People whose water contains TCE can be exposed not just by drinking it but also by inhaling it while showering, washing dishes and doing other household activities,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG.
“Communities across the country have water with potentially harmful levels of this toxic solvent, but many people don’t know about the risk they face when they turn on the tap,” she said.
Although people who work with solvents are especially susceptible to TCE exposure and associated harms, members of the public are often exposed to TCE through contact with contaminated sites, like military installations.
Pregnant people, infants and young children are some of the most at risk from the dangers of TCE, especially decreased immune function.
The ATSDR study uncovered increased risks of various types of leukemia, lymphoma and cancers affecting the lung, breast, larynx, esophagus, thyroid and soft tissues. It found:
- Marines/Navy personnel: Increased risk for leukemia, lymphoma and cancers of the lung, breast, larynx, esophagus, thyroid, and soft tissues.
- Civilian workers: Elevated risk for myeloid cancers and some breast and lung cancers.
The study used data linkages from cancer registries across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the Pacific Islands and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. It is one of the most comprehensive investigations into the health consequences of toxic water exposures at Camp Lejeune.
“The Department of Defense must clean up toxic exposures at military bases. This is a systemic failure to protect those who have selflessly served our country. Defending this nation starts with protecting the health of those who serve it,” said Hayes.
Retired Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger was stationed for many years at Camp Lejeune. His daughter Janey died in 1985 at the age of 9 from leukemia, after she was exposed to toxic chemicals while living on base. Ensminger has been an outspoken critic of the federal government’s slow response to drinking water sources contaminated by industrial chemicals, including the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
"It’s no secret that the DOD is our nation's largest polluter," said Ensminger. "For our military to have done what they did, the most sacred duty of any leader is to take care of their subordinates."
"At Camp Lejeune, not only did the leaders poison their subordinates they poisoned our families," he said.
"I started this fight back in 1997 and we are still fighting. We still don't know the full extent of contamination at the base. We know that there is a big problem with benzene and other contaminants like PFAS and they still have not provided all the evidence for that," added Ensminger.
The Janey Ensminger Act, signed into law by former President Barack Obama, offers affected veterans and family members extended health care and medical services for disorders that may have been caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in Camp Lejeune drinking water. The law is a powerful example of how Congress can unify to pass legislation to better protect public health and the environment.
A similar situation of drinking water contamination has been playing out for the past several decades on military bases across the U.S., where PFAS chemicals have been found in drinking water on-base.
While the military is currently working to lower PFAS contamination levels at some bases, it is likely that the chemicals were in base drinking water systems for years, potentially exposing hundreds of thousands of service members and their families.
The military’s current environmental cleanup backlog has climbed significantly in recent years to nearly $39 billion, though funding for military sites has remained flat. The longer the DOD takes to start the cleanup of toxic contaminants, the more money and resources it will need to fully address the issue, even as staff and service members continue to face the risk of exposure.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) have proposed the PFAS Accountability Act, which would allow individuals exposed to PFAS to sue manufacturers for medical monitoring costs related to health issues linked to these chemicals. The legislation aims to provide broader access to medical monitoring and empower courts to compel manufacturers to fund research on PFAS health effects.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.