WASHINGTON — Federal health officials have determined that water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune exceeded safe levels as far back as August 1953, four years earlier than previous findings.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also found that water had been contaminated at two additional water distribution systems on the base.
"This a big deal," said Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who was stationed at Lejeune and whose daughter died of a rare form of leukemia in 1985 at age 9.
Confirming the presence of human carcinogens on the base as far back as 1953 will expand the eligibility of veterans and family members who can receive health benefits under the Honoring America's Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who introduced the legislation.
A Marine Corps spokeswoman estimated Friday that the time line expansion adds 33,000 to 53,000 to the number of people at Lejeune while the water was contaminated.
President Barack Obama signed the Lejeune law in August. It provides health care for people who lived or worked at the base from 1957 to 1987 and have a condition listed within the bill that is linked to exposure to dangerous chemicals. Now, those who lived or worked on the base starting in 1953 should also be eligible.
At the time of the signing, it was estimated that 750,000 Marine veterans and family members may have been exposed to drinking water that was poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride. Some medical experts have linked the contamination to birth defects, childhood leukemia and other cancers.
The Tampa Bay Times has reported extensively on the water contamination since 2009, including stories noting that the Marine Corps had failed to caution its personnel about polluted water despite numerous early warnings. The Times was the first to report that men with ties to the base were suffering from rare breast cancer.