What Contaminates Did Testing Show in the Camp Lejeune Water Supply?Testing showed several potential contaminants in the Camp Lejeune water supply.
Trichloroethylene (TCE)Trichloroethylene is a solvent that removes grease from metal during manufacturing. It has no color, making it hard to detect if it gets naturally washed into a water supply. Commercial dry cleaners may use TCE as part of their spot cleaning treatments, especially to remove grease stains on the fabric. Because TCE breaks down slowly, it can accumulate in groundwater and soil over time. As a result, tests can find it in drinking water long after initial contamination. TCE can cause a significantly increased risk of multiple types of cancer, including kidney cancer.
Perchloroethylene (PCE)Perchloroethylene, or PCE, is often used in metal degreasing and dry cleaning operations. PCE can prove highly carcinogenic. It can cause immediate, acute problems based on short-term exposure or longer-term problems with the respiratory tract, kidneys, or coordination. Consistent or long-term PCE exposure can also raise the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Like TCE, PCE breaks down relatively slowly over time, which can linger in water sources and soil.
BenzeneAcross the United States, benzene is used in lubricants, detergents, and pesticides, among other products. In effect, benzene causes cells to fail to work correctly. It may lead to anemia, damage the immune system, or decrease white blood cells in people exposed to it at high concentrations. Long-term exposure to benzene can lead to a significantly increased risk of leukemia in humans.
Vinyl ChlorideVinyl chloride has many commercial uses, including making plastic for pipes or wire coverings. While vinyl chloride evaporates quickly, it may contaminate local water supplies. When contaminated water evaporates, including water used for household purposes like showering or cleaning, it can evaporate, causing users to inhale it. Vinyl chloride exposure may increase the risk of liver cancer, brain cancer, lung cancer, and leukemia.
What Caused Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune?Drinking water at Camp Lejeune contained several potentially toxic chemicals between the 1950s and the 1980s. Unfortunately, the Marine Corps did not discover the high concentrations of those volatile organic compounds in two of the eight water treatment plants on the base until 1982. Marines who lived and worked on that base during those years, and family members who lived on base or visited regularly, may have faced consistent, high levels of exposure to those compounds.
The Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment PlantAt The Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant, testing uncovered high levels of PCE, or perchloroethylene, in the water. Further investigation discovered that ABC One-Hour Cleaners, an off-base dry cleaning company, had unsafe disposal practices for their chemical waste from the dry cleaning process. The dry cleaning company may also have had a high number of spills that may have assisted in overall groundwater contamination. Dry cleaning operations from ABC One-Hour Cleaners began in 1953, and local groundwater contamination may have occurred then. The contamination may have increased over the years due to increased output.
Hadnot Point Water SystemThe Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant, which served the base hospital and much of the base housing on Holcomb Boulevard, had several potential contaminants. Investigating the cause of the contamination in that area proved much more complex due to the multiple contaminants found in the water and multiple potential sources for those volatile organic compounds. First, high levels of TCE contamination occurred in the Hadnot Point water system. Several potential factors may have contributed to the high level of TCE contamination, including:
- On-base spills, which Marines may have simply washed away without taking the time to adequately clean up. On-base spills may not have received the attention they should have, based on needs at the time.
- Leaks from underground storage tanks and drums may have made their way into groundwater and the wells used to supply the Hadnot Point Water Treatment Plant.
- Local dumps may not have adequately contained hazardous chemicals or used appropriate disposal methods. Over time, those chemicals may have leached into the groundwater, then made their way through the treatment plant and into the water supply used by people on the base.
Estimating the Degree of ContaminationNo records show the level of contamination at those water treatment facilities before 1982. Therefore, the Marine Corps must rely on estimates of potential contamination over time, based on the contaminants in the water when testing began and the supposed historical amount of contamination in the water. A committee from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) performed a historical reconstruction of potential contamination to determine what levels likely existed in the water supply over time. Unfortunately, those models uncovered unacceptably high levels of contaminants in the water, likely beginning around November 1957 for the Tarawa Terrance water supply. The Hadnot Point water supply also likely had similarly high levels of contamination, potentially beginning as early as the late 1940s.
Exposure in Humans Varies by BehaviorsMany may wonder if they faced exposure to any potentially hazardous chemicals while serving or living at Camp Lejeune, particularly if they have faced a devastating cancer diagnosis. Historical reconstruction of the likely contamination of those water supplies, combined with a reconstruction of the individual's movements through the area, may provide insights into how much contamination the individual may have faced. Experts may ask:
- Where did you live and work while at Camp Lejeune? How much of the water you used likely came from the contaminated supply?
- Did you use a great deal of water? Did you typically shower, which could result in more inhalation of those chemicals present in the water, or bathe?
- Where did you use that water?