Camp Lejeune Water Contamination

August 22nd, 2012

Recent events in Washington D.C. have caused the long-forgotten yet tragic Camp Lejeune water contamination event to re-surface. Though unknown to many Americans, the water contamination at two treatment plants at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in North Carolina was a serious contamination problem that spanned three decades and caused illness in hundreds of thousands of Marine veterans and their families. Though the water contamination occurred between 1957 and 1987, President Obama just recently signed a bill that provides health care to the more than 750,000 marine veterans and their families that were affected by the contaminated water. It is important that we learn exactly what happened at Camp Lejeune in order to fully understand the consequences of drinking contaminated water.

Drinking Water Contaminants

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), two of eight water treatment plants at Camp Lejeune were found to be contaminated in a 1982 study. The Tarawa Terrace Treatment Plant was contaminated with perchloroethylene (PCE), also known as tetrachloroethylene, which was released by an off-base dry cleaning firm. For thirty years, the PCE exceeded the limit of 5 parts per billion (ppb) with maximum levels at approximately 215 ppb.

The other polluted treatment plant was Hadnot Point. Leaking underground storage tanks, waste disposal sites, and industrial area spills released trichloroethylene (TCE) as well as other contaminants into the drinking water near this site. Though the maximum contaminant limit for TCE is only 5 ppb, the maximum TCE level detected in the drinking water when tested in 1985 was 1400 ppb.

Health Effects

The effects of drinking water contaminated with PCE and TCE are largely unknown due to a lack of scientific studies. According to ATSDR, PCE and TCE are believed to be responsible for causing bladder cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, rectal cancer, and leukemia in some people that lived or worked at Camp Lejeune. Pregnant women that drank the contaminated water exposed their fetuses as well, which caused low birth weight babies and in some cases, fetal death. Many children that were exposed to either PCE or TCE while still in the womb also experienced numerous health effects including:

  • Leukemia
  • Eye defects
  • Heart and neural tube defects
  • Oral cleft defects (cleft lip)
  • Chonal atresia (nasal passages blocked by bone or tissue)

The severity of the health effects varied depending on the amount of contaminant available and duration of exposure. Therefore, some people did not experience severe effects or any effects at all. But the fact that even one individual has suffered due to this extremely long period of contamination is inexcusable. Though the treatment plants were shut down in 1985, thousands of Americans still experience health problems today as a result of this event.

Lessons Learned

Unfortunately the Camp Lejeune victims cannot change what happened to them but you can learn from this incident and take steps to avoid drinking contaminated water. First of all, understand that contaminants in the water are often undetectable, producing no odor or foul taste, yet the consequences from drinking these contaminants may be severe. Secondly, be aware of any potential sources of contamination in your area, such as agricultural or industrial runoff. Thirdly, investigate the quality of your tap or well water. Finally, take control of your drinking water and use a water filter that removes harmful contaminants.


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