Federal scientists have found an increased incidence of some birth defects and cancers such as leukemia in children of mothers exposed to polluted drinking water at the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base, according to a new federal report.
The report provides the most significant evidence yet that water may have harmed the health of those who lived at the North Carolina base, including at least 19,350 from Florida.
A draft of the much-anticipated study was released late Thursday by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and surveyed the parents of 12,598 children who were born at Camp Lejeune from 1968 to 1985.
The study found increased incidence of neural tube defects, a serious birth defect involving an opening in the brain or spinal cord, in children whose mothers were exposed to contaminants early in pregnancy. Spina bifida is a type of NTD.
A weaker but still significant link was found between leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma diagnosed before age 20 in those born at the base whose mothers were exposed to tainted water, the report said.
The total number of cancer and birth defects cases is small — 39 children with birth defects and 13 cancers. But scientists who have worked on health issues involving Camp Lejeune said the report was nonetheless important.
"This is an important step," said Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who serves on a panel that advises ATSDR on Camp Lejeune health issues. "The study incorporates the best information we have on the level of contamination on the Camp Lejeune water system. And sure enough, they found something significant."
The study was quickly hailed as vindication for veterans and family members who lived at the base and have long argued chemical contamination of tap water damaged their health.
"The Marine Corps has been telling everyone for a long time that they were waiting for the science to speak. Well, the science has spoken," said former Marine Corps drill instructor Jerry Ensminger of North Carolina. His 9-year-old daughter, Janey, died of leukemia in 1985 after his family lived at the base.
In a statement to the media, the Marine Corps said, "These results provide additional information in support of ongoing efforts to provide comprehensive science-based answers to the health questions that have been raised."
A Corps spokeswoman said she could make no further comment.
Ensminger said he was certain Marine Corps officials would ultimately attack the report's small sample size. "They'll say the study was statistically insignificant," he said.
He called on ATSDR to launch a cancer-incidence study among all former base residents. The agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also is working on a study to see if death rates at the base were higher than a control group. No release date is set. A study of male breast cancer also is under way.
"The study is an important contribution to the scientific knowledge about the health effects of these chemicals," the ATSDR said in a statement. "The information from this study, together with other information about the health effects of these chemicals, will play an important role in policy and regulatory decisions concerning regulating these contaminants in drinking water."
The only previous health study involving Camp Lejeune linked low birth weights to babies born there.
What now remains to be seen is whether the Marine Corps moves to settle any of the hundreds of compensation claims from veterans and families who believe the water caused health problems. Claimants can file suit if a claim is rejected.
Scientists believe up to 1 million people may have been exposed to water tainted with a brew of chemicals from the 1950s to the mid 1980s. Contaminants included benzene, a component of gasoline, and industrial solvents such as trichloroethylene, or TCE.
Nearly 230,000 people have signed up for a health registry because they think they were exposed to the polluted water. The 19,350 in Florida is the second-highest total in the nation behind North Carolina.
Some scientists believe the contamination at Camp Lejeune may have been the worst ever in a large drinking-water system.
Many of those who drank, bathed and cooked with the fouled water have reported a range of cancers, from bladder and liver cancers to more than 85 men diagnosed with rare breast cancer.
The Corps has previously argued these contaminants were not regulated until the late 1980s and that it closed tainted water wells as soon as contamination was confirmed.
But documents show the Corps' own regulations, starting in 1963, barred the use of water with those contaminants, critics say.
Jody MacPherson of Riverview, whose husband, Ian, was a Camp Lejeune veteran who died in 2004 of prostate cancer at age 46, said the report provides one more piece of evidence that the U.S. government failed its own.
"Maybe this will save some lives," she said. "It can help make sure nothing like this ever happens again."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.