Toxic Tuesdays

CHEJ highlights several toxic chemicals and the communities fighting to keep their citizens safe from harm.

TCE & PCE (Military Toxics)

Camp Lejeune is a US Marine Corps base established in 1942 in Jacksonville, North Carolina. In 1982 the Marine Corps found that drinking water from distribution plants serving the majority of the base was contaminated with volatile organic compounds. This contamination came from leaking storage tanks, poor industrial waste disposal, and a dry cleaning firm. The main contaminants were trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). TCE exposure is known to cause kidney cancer, lymphoma, and cardiac defects, and it is also linked to liver cancer, leukemia, and Parkinson’s disease. PCE exposure is known to cause bladder cancer and is linked to lymphoma and renal disease. Exposure to these chemicals may also be linked to infertility, miscarriage, and birth defects. At one of the water treatment plants in Camp Lejeune, TCE levels were 280 times higher than the current acceptable limit set by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). At another plant, PCE levels were 43 times higher than the current acceptable limit. While the most contaminated water wells were subsequently shut down, people living and working at Camp Lejeune were likely exposed to high levels of these toxins for decades. ATSDR estimates that residents were likely exposed to these toxins from 1957 to 1987. Even more concerning, the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) says, “The exact duration and intensity of the exposure at Camp Lejeune are unknown. The geographic extent of contamination by specific chemicals also is unknown.” This means the number of people exposed at Camp Lejeune and the full extent of their health risks from this contamination are difficult to evaluate.

For years, the grassroots organization The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten has been advocating for those affected by the Camp Lejeune contamination. It provides information about potential health effects and raised questions about the Marine Corps’ official contamination timeline. Most importantly, it keeps the focus of this crisis on the people, spotlighting former service members and families facing devastating illnesses and death because of these toxins. By telling the stories of those affected, The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten makes sure we reckon with the harm that has been done to countless lives.

Through pressure from groups like The Few, The Proud, The Forgotten and US senators, in 2017 the VA created a “presumption of service connection” for eight health conditions associated with exposure to the toxins in the Camp Lejeune water supply. This means that for active duty military and National Guard members who served at the base for at least 30 days from 1953 to 1987 and develop any of these health conditions, the VA will presume that they are caused by the toxins at Camp Lejeune and provide them with disability benefits. The eight health conditions are: adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and Parkinson’s disease.

The situation at Camp Lejeune is but one example of contamination at military bases that has affected not just the soldiers on the base and their families, but also civilians who live nearby. The USEPA has listed as many as 130 military sites as candidate Superfund sites with 22 on the Superfund list. While the health benefits provided at Camp Lejeune are a good first step, they don’t do anything to keep service members safe. More needs to be done such as advocating for proactive measures like stricter waste disposal regulations, environmental monitoring, and biomonitoring, to make sure people are protected. It isn’t enough to mitigate the damage from crises like that at Camp Lejeune, we must prevent these crises from happening again.

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