CDC: Water at Lejeune Linked to Birth Defects
Dec 06, 2013
Associated Press| by Michael Biesecker
RALEIGH, N.C. - A long-awaited study by the U.S. Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention shows a link between tainted tap water at a U.S.
Marine Corps base in North Carolina and increased risk of serious birth
defects and childhood cancers.
The study released late Thursday by the CDC's Agency for Toxic
Substances & Disease Registry is based on a small sample size and cannot
prove exposure to the chemicals caused individual illnesses. It surveyed
the parents of 12,598 children born at Camp Lejeune between 1968 and
1985, the year most contaminated drinking water wells were closed.
The study looked back in time and was designed to see if there was a
link between exposure to certain chemicals and certain health problems
that developed later. This type of study is often used to investigate
disease outbreaks, when health officials are trying to identify possible
reasons for the illnesses.
The study concludes that babies born to mothers who drank the tap water
while pregnant were four times more likely than women in similar
circumstances who did not consume the water to have such serious birth
defects as spina bifida. Babies whose mothers were exposed also had a
slightly elevated risk of such childhood cancers as leukemia, according
to the results.
The study relied on models and was not able to measure how much tainted
water those surveyed consumed, and therefore could not gauge how much of
the chemical they may have been exposed to. The study also did not look
at the health effects on adults that drank the water. More than 80 men
with Lejeune ties have been diagnosed with an extremely rare form of
Epidemiologist Richard W. Clapp, who serves on a federal board that has
reviewed the Lejeune contamination, said the links found through the
study are relatively weak due to the relatively small sample size. Of
the families surveyed, 106 cases of birth defects and childhood
hematopoietic cancers were reported. Of those, medical records to
confirm the illnesses could be obtained in only 52 cases.
Still, Clapp said the findings are important because they show the first
conclusive links between the base's tainted water and negative health
effects in the children of Marines based there.
"The fact that there was anything found is pretty important," said
Clapp, professor emeritus at Boston University's School of Public
Health. "This is an insensitive tool that we use here, these
epidemiological studies. So the fact that they found anything is sort of
The study contradicts the longstanding position of the military, which
for decades has issued public statements downplaying the health risks to
Marines and their families.
A brief statement issued by Lejeune spokeswoman Capt. Maureen Krebs said
the Marine Corps has supported scientific and public health
organizations studying the health impacts of the contamination.
"These results provide additional information in support of ongoing
efforts to provide comprehensive science-based answers to the health
questions that have been raised," the statement said. "The Marine Corps
continues to support these initiatives and we are working diligently to
identify and notify individuals who, in the past, may have been exposed
to the chemicals in drinking water."
Krebs said Friday she could provide no comment about the new report
beyond the written statement.
Records reviewed by The Associated Press show military authorities
continued to rely on the wells for years after testing suggested the
water was contaminated. The most highly contaminated wells were closed
in 1984 and 1985, after a round of more extensive testing found
dangerous concentrations of toxins associated with degreasing solvents
A prior CDC study cited a February 1985 level for trichloroethylene of
18,900 parts per billion in one Lejeune drinking water well - nearly
4,000 times today's maximum allowed health limit of 5 ppb. Testing also
found high levels of benzene, a fuel additive.
The ground water contamination was traced to two primary sources - a
leaky on-base fuel depot and a nearby dry cleaner. In prior public
statements, Marine officials have emphasized the contamination that came
from outside the base. But the newly released study found the greatest
negative health impacts to be associated with benzene, which came from
the on-base Hadnot Point tank farm built during World War II.
Last year, President Barack Obama signed the Camp Lejeune Veterans and
Family Act to provide medical care and screening for Marines and their
families, but not civilians, exposed between 1957 and 1987. The law
covers 15 diseases or conditions, including female infertility,
miscarriage, leukemia and multiple myeloma, as well as bladder, breast,
esophageal, kidney and lung cancers.
The law was passed after years of advocacy by former Marines who blamed
the contamination for negative health impacts, efforts that were often
met with strong resistance from the Marine Corps.
Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine drill instructor, lost his 9-year-old
daughter Janey to leukemia in 1985. He said the study results are a
vindicadation of what he's been saying for nearly 20 years, but it won't
bring his daughter back.
"Nothing ever gives you comfort when you lose a child," Ensminger said
Friday. "I think that's the worst thing that can happen to a human being
... to watch them go through the hell they go though. That's something
that never leaves you."
Associated Press national writer Allen G. Breed contributed to this