WASHINGTON — In the decades that poisonous chemicals tainted the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., hundreds of thousands of Marines filed through the base, but so far, only 200 veterans have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to link their illnesses to the poisons.
Of those, only 20 have been told "yes."
A Veterans Affairs official told Congress on Thursday that despite the evidence of widespread contamination of drinking water at Camp Lejeune, the agency doesn't think that the science yet exists to link exposure to the toxic water to a host of cancers and other diseases suffered by former base residents.
"Establishing presumptive diseases at this point would be premature," said Thomas J. Pamperin, the associate deputy undersecretary for policy and program management at Veterans Affairs.
Instead, the VA has awarded benefits on a case-by-case — and isolated — basis.
As the military, federal scientists, congressional officials and Veterans Affairs try to sort out how closely to link the toxins in the water with a variety of illnesses and cancers, Marines and their families continue to struggle for their health care.
"The degree of contamination was extraordinary at Camp Lejeune," testified Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Boston University. The amount of trichloroethylene, or TCE, recorded in one sample in 1982, he noted, was 1,400 parts per billion — more than 280 times what would be allowed by today's standards.
"This is the largest (TCE) exposure in our country's history," said Clapp, who also serves on an advisory panel for federal scientists studying the issue. "Congress needs to act." He said there's plenty of science — dating to the early 1980s — to show TCE and other contaminants have impacts that can include a variety of cancers and, for newborns, birth defects.
No presumption yet exists, however.
Marines Corps Maj. Gen. Eugene G. Payne said the military relies on scientists to make a determination about whether the contamination can be connected to veterans' illnesses.