Marines and Navy personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., during years when its drinking water was highly polluted with toxic chemicals died of cancer far more frequently than those who lived at a base without fouled water, a federal study said Wednesday.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's long-awaited mortality study provides persuasive evidence polluted water sickened people who lived at the North Carolina base, say members of a panel advising ATSDR.
Death rates for all cancers at Camp Lejeune were 10 percent higher than at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base in California whose water was never contaminated, the study said.
For some types of cancer, the death rate was much greater at Lejeune when compared to Pendleton, according to the report. Examples include: kidney cancer (35 percent higher), liver cancer (42 percent), esophageal cancer (43 percent), cervical cancer (33 percent), Hodgkins lymphoma (47 percent) and multiple myeloma (68 percent).
Up to 1 million people, including nearly 20,000 Floridians, lived and worked at Lejeune during the more than three decades its drinking water was contaminated ending in 1987.
"This mortality study is certainly significant, and shows increased overall cancer deaths in Camp Lejeune veterans . . . and trends toward increased kidney cancer and leukemia deaths with increasing exposure to contaminated water," said Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist who serves on the ATSDR advisory panel.
The Marine Corps and ATSDR did not return messages seeking comment.
"This mortality study has given a voice to the thousands of dead Marines and sailors needlessly poisoned by the gross negligence of their leadership," said Michael Partain, 46, who was born at Camp Lejeune and also serves on the panel advising ATSDR. "Through their voices, maybe the living will have a fighting chance."
The mortality study compared 8,964 deaths of people who lived at Camp Lejeune from 1975 to 1985 to deaths of veterans stationed at Camp Pendleton during the same time period.
Those deaths amounted to nearly 6 percent of the 154,932 people stationed at Camp Lejeune in the decade examined, still a relatively small number, the study cautioned.
The study noted that cancer rates could change over time, and perhaps even fall. This is because Camp Lejeune's surviving population is relatively young — mostly under 55 — and rates could go up or down as additional deaths are recorded, the study said.
"Long-term follow-up would be necessary for a comprehensive assessment of the effects of exposures to the contaminated drinking water at the base," the study said.
Though base water became contaminated starting in the 1950s or earlier, the study's time frame was limited by the availability of some military records.
The report also noted the rate of kidney cancer at Camp Lejeune was 16 percent greater than the U.S. population. Additionally, multiple myeloma cancer deaths were 5 percent higher than the U.S. population, while cervical cancer deaths were 3 percent higher.
Those results were not anticipated, the study said, because the base's population was younger and, as a whole, in better health than the U.S. population.
Leaders of a group of Camp Lejeune veterans and family members said ATSDR now needs to conduct a cancer-incidence study to get a full picture of the harm caused by chemicals. Such a study might show how many people have survived cancers and other diseases.
Jerry Ensminger, a former Marine drill instructor who believes his 9-year-old daughter died in 1985 of leukemia caused by Lejeune's polluted water, said ATSDR and Marine Corps officials have been reluctant to take on such a study.
The government "exposed us to the highest levels of drinking water contamination in the history of our country, yet they don't want to do a cancer-incidence study?" Ensminger said. "It's like the government ran this ghoulish experiment on our families and now they don't want to know the results."
Another battle may come in Congress, where veterans are pushing for full Department of Veterans Affairs benefits to those made sick by Lejeune water.
In a statement released by his office, Sen. Bill Nelson said, "I want to see all barriers to treatment removed for affected Camp Lejeune veterans and their families."
Calls for comment to Sen. Kay Hagan and Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina lawmakers who have led efforts in Congress on Lejeune issues, were not returned Wednesday.
Camp Lejeune water was contaminated with fuel byproducts, solvents and other chemicals. Sources included leaking underground fuel tanks.
Contaminated water wells were closed by the mid-1980s.
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.