The Marine Corps said it wanted to wait on the science before doing right by tens of thousands of veterans and their families affected by polluted drinking water at Camp Lejeune. Now a new study should finally force the government to accept responsibility for the serious health problems these military families have suffered.
A draft of a much-anticipated study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found an increased incidence of birth defects and cancers such as leukemia in children of mothers exposed to tainted water at the North Carolina base. The survey of parents of 12,598 children who were born at the base between 1968 and 1985 found an elevated 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 their pregnancies.
The findings, released last week, provide the most significant evidence yet that water may have harmed the health of those who lived at the base, including at least 19,350 people from Florida. As the Tampa Bay Times' William R. Levesque reported, the findings provide what one epidemiologist called "the best information we have" on contamination levels in the camp's water system. As many as 1 million people may have been exposed to contaminated water at Lejeune from the 1950s to 1980s, with pollutants ranging from benzene, a component of gasoline, to trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent.
The findings by the agency, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, add to the urgency for the government to provide a much fuller picture of the health history and death rates for former base residents. Nearly 230,000 people have signed up for a health registry and fear they were exposed to harmful pollutant levels at Lejeune; the 19,350 figure from Florida is the second-highest total in the country behind North Carolina.
The Marine Corps should recognize its obligation to these veterans and their families. It should welcome a larger study on the health histories of this population and build on the findings to aggressively address the hundreds of compensation claims by veterans and military family members. Time is not on the side of those who were exposed, and the Marines should not drag out a process that has already left thousands in limbo for decades. A 77-year-old veteran who led the fight over access to disability claims resulting from service at Lejeune died last week in Sarasota.
Members of Congress should keep up the pressure. That's been instrumental in prodding the Defense Department to finally give this veterans' health issue the serious attention it deserves.