Mike Partain was startled two years ago when he tracked down nine former male residents of Camp Lejeune, N.C., who shared an exceedingly rare trait.
A breast cancer diagnosis.
Partain, who was born at the base in 1969 and is himself a breast cancer survivor, would eventually find 73 other men who lived at Lejeune, drank its polluted water and were diagnosed with the disease.
His list may soon get much, much longer.
Federal scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry confirmed last week that 184 male Marine Corps veterans with a history of breast cancer have been identified in Department of Veterans Affairs records.
More research is under way to see how many of those men have ties to the base, where drinking water was contaminated with carcinogens for 30 years ending in 1987.
But Lejeune is one of the Corps' two largest bases. And some members of a panel advising ATSDR on Lejeune believe as many as half of those 184 may have served at the base.
"How many men do you have to find with breast cancer to accept that the water poisoned us?" asked Partain, a Tallahassee insurance investigator who also serves on the advisory panel. "How many bodies do you have to stack up? People should be enraged by this."
Researchers are not done combing VA records — about 38 percent of the veterans on a VA cancer registry must still be checked. So that tally of 184 male breast cancer cases could substantially increase.
In addition, VA records would not reflect civilians, such as the family members of Marines who lived at Camp Lejeune.
In fact, about a dozen of the 73 people on Partain's list never served in the Corps.
ATSDR's deputy director, Dr. Tom Sinks, said the agency is assessing if a case control study should be launched to see if these breast cancer numbers are abnormally high.
Partain is certain they are, noting just one in 100,000 men is diagnosed with breast cancer.
The Marine Corps, however, maintains that no link has been established between the base's polluted water and any disease.
"The question of whether a connection exists has been raised, and it is important to try to answer it," said Capt. Kendra Hardesty, a Corps spokeswoman.
"We realize that some of our Marine family members have been diagnosed with severe diseases," she said. "Our hearts go out to them. … We continue to support ATSDR's ongoing" work.
Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist and member of ATSDR's advisory panel, said 40 percent or more was a plausible estimate as to how many of the 184 Marines might have ties to Lejeune.
"The case control study needs to be done," he said. "Then we'll have a better picture. Then we'll know."
ATSDR officials won't comment on the significance of the latest findings, saying more research is needed. In 2012, for example, the agency plans to release a mortality study that may show if Lejeune residents have died of a list of diseases, including breast cancer, at a higher rate than a control group at Camp Pendleton in California.
One thing ATSDR hopes to review is what other risk factors these veterans might have shared.
Partain, the son of a Marine officer, said he is disappointed that what he considers the largest male breast cancer cluster ever identified isn't getting more attention, especially in Congress.
But the Corps said these cases have not yet been verified as a cluster by scientists.
"We are not aware there is an actual cancer cluster," said Hardesty, the Corps spokeswoman.
Partain remains certain.
"At nine cases, this was incredible," he said. "At 29, it became an eyebrow-raiser. At 40, that was confirmation. Now it's 70 approaching 100 or more. To me, the public needs to take notice."
Contact William R. Levesque at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.