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Study: Possible link between Camp Lejeune male breast cancer and pollutants

In this 2008 file photo, Mike Partain holds an April 2007 X-ray showing a 2.5 centimeter cancerous tumor inside his right breast. Partain believes the tumor and several other health conditions he has are a result of exposure to tetrachloroethylene-laden water he ingested in utero and after his birth at Camp Leune, North Carolina.
In this 2008 file photo, Mike Partain holds an April 2007 X-ray showing a 2.5 centimeter cancerous tumor inside his right breast. Partain believes the tumor and several other health conditions he has are a result of exposure to tetrachloroethylene-laden water he ingested in utero and after his birth at Camp Leune, North Carolina.
Published Sep. 21, 2015

Federal scientists studying drinking water contamination at Camp Lejeune, N.C., said in a new study they have found a "possible association" between pollutants and cases of male breast cancer among those who lived on the Marine Corps base.

"We observed an accelerated onset of male breast cancer among those stationed at Camp Lejeune compared to other bases," the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in a study published last week in the journal Environmental Health.

Lejeune was the site of one of the worst public drinking water contaminations in the nation's history. Drinking water there was tainted with dangerous chemicals for at least 30 years, ending in about 1987, according to scientists.

Up to a million Marines, sailors and family members may have been exposed to pollutants, including more than 14,000 Floridians who have signed a Marine Corps health registry — the most of any state except North Carolina.

The Tampa Bay Times first reported the unusual incidence of male breast cancer at the base in 2009.

Scientists looked at 444 men born before 1969 who were in the Marines and have been treated for certain cancers at the Department of Veterans Affairs. They found 30 who were stationed at Camp Lejeune and later diagnosed with breast cancer.

ATSDR scientists said the numbers suggested a possible association between male breast cancer and cumulative exposure to a range of chemicals found in drinking water, including solvents.

Male breast cancer is an exceedingly rare cancer with an incidence of about 1 in every 100,000 men.

About 100 men with male breast cancer who lived at Lejeune have been identified by a group of former base residents. The study does not discuss this higher figure nor explain why it was not considered in the study.

Scientists cautioned the study is limited by the relatively small number of cases examined and other shortfalls, including the fact that not all veterans seek care at the VA. They said further research is warranted, and ATSDR is already working on a broader study.

The discovery of the possible male breast cancer cluster was not the work of epidemiologists or scientists working for the Corps. It was the work of a determined Winter Haven insurance investigator who was born on Camp Lejeune in 1968, where his father was a Marine officer.

Mike Partain was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39 in 2007. Puzzled by the unusual diagnosis, Partain used the internet, his skills as an investigator and word of mouth to track down about 100 men who lived on the base and were later diagnosed with the disease.

That quickly attracted the attention of scientists and the media, and male breast cancer soon became the disease most often associated with Camp Lejeune by the public.

Partain called the study an important step is demonstrating a link between pollutants and male breast cancer.

"The handwriting is on the wall," said Partain, who also serves on a citizens panel that advises ATSDR. "What we do to the environment affects our health. And this is confirmation of that."

The Marine Corps in a written statement did not offer an evaluation of the study's merits.

"The Camp Lejeune ... drinking water issue is an important concern for our Marine Corps family," the Marine Corps said. "Some of our Marine family members have experienced tragic health issues they believe are associated with water they drank or used in the past at Camp Lejeune. Our goal is to use the best available science in an effort to provide our Marine Corps family members the answers they deserve and keep them updated as new information becomes available."

Camp Lejeune drinking water was contaminated by a variety of sources through its history. One of the most-significant points of contamination was a fuel depot at the base whose underground tanks leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of gasoline through the years.

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432. Follow @Times_Levesque.