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Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Birth Defects

People residing at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 may have been exposed to various toxic chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOC). Specific VOCs found at Camp Lejeune have been associated with birth defects, childhood cancers, and other serious health issues. A recently signed bill allows victims to bring lawsuits against the U.S. government.

Camp Lejeune, located on the coast of North Carolina, has served as a home to millions of Marine Corps service members and their families since it was founded in 1941. It’s currently home to more than 150,000 people, including active duty Marines, their families, retirees, and civilians.

Unfortunately, many people who lived on base from the 1950s through the 1980s experienced exposure to toxic chemicals known as VOCs or volatile organic compounds. These chemicals can harm human health and cause serious health problems in children and adults, as well as birth defects.

The situation is still under investigation by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services. The ATSDR is affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Toxic Exposures at Camp Lejeune

In 1982, the Marine Corps discovered the contamination at water treatment plants on the base. The water was polluted with several VOCs. These industrial chemicals can also be emitted into the air. Many VOCs are known to cause harmful health effects, including cancer and birth defects.

According to the ATSDR, the specific chemicals found in drinking water at Camp Lejeune included:

  • Perchloroethylene (PCE)
  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)
  • Vinyl chloride
  • Benzene
  • Trans-1,2-dichloroethylene (DCE)

The levels of these chemicals were not just slightly elevated; extremely high levels of the toxic agents were found in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune. Benzene, TCE, and vinyl chloride are categorized as human carcinogens; PCE is classified as a probable human carcinogen.

According to data provided by the ATSDR, the highest level of PCE found was more than 43 times the maximum amount allowed in drinking water. In another water source, the highest level of TCE was more than 280 times the maximum safe amount.

Water Contamination Sources

Three of the eight water treatment plants on base were contaminated: Hadnot Point, Holcomb Boulevard, and Tarawa Terrace. These plants have historically supplied water to most of the family housing units on base. The contaminated systems were shut down in 1985 and 1987 but had already caused toxic exposures to families living on base for decades.

The source of the water contamination came from waste disposal sites and underground storage tanks that were found to be leaking. A local, off-base dry cleaning business was also a water contamination source at Camp Lejeune.

Vapor Intrusion

In addition to direct exposure through drinking the contaminated water, people at Camp Lejeune could have been exposed to airborne toxins. Because VOCs readily evaporate, they can move from the shallow groundwater into the air around and beneath buildings.

From there, they enter indoor spaces, where people can breathe them. VOCs can’t always be detected by smell, so many people unwittingly become exposed to these chemicals through vapor intrusion.

The ATSDR is still evaluating the possible health effects that this method of exposure could cause. Until the assessment is complete, we won’t know the full extent of the harm caused by vapor intrusion. A preliminary report is expected to be issued soon.

Birth Defects Caused by Camp Lejeune Toxic Exposures

The chemicals identified in the water at Camp Lejeune can cause serious health problems in people who are exposed, including cancers and chronic diseases.

When pregnant women are exposed, these VOCs can also cause serious defects in their babies. Birth defects associated with exposure to the chemicals found at Camp Lejeune include:

  • Neural tube defects (NTDs): The neural tube is a structure in the embryo that forms the brain and spinal cord. This process doesn’t happen correctly if a child has a neural tube defect. According to the Annual Review of Neuroscience, the most common NTDs are spina bifida and anencephaly. In children with spina bifida, the spinal column doesn’t close properly, leaving part of the spinal cord unprotected. This can cause various complications, including paralysis and brain damage (from a buildup of fluid around the brain). Children with anencephaly are born with an underdeveloped brain and incomplete skull; this condition is fatal.
  • Preterm birth or low birth weight: Both conditions significantly increase a baby’s risk for a variety of serious health problems.
  • Oral clefts (such as cleft lip): These birth defects happen when the baby’s roof of the mouth (the palate) doesn’t form completely, leaving a space, or cleft, in the child’s upper lip or the roof of the mouth.
  • Choanal atresia: In this condition, the baby is born with blocked nasal passages of membranous soft tissue, bone, or a combination of both. Because newborns must breathe through their noses, this is potentially a very serious condition.
  • Congenital eye defects: Examples include anophthalmia (no eye), optic nerve hypoplasia (underdeveloped optic nerve), and microphthalmia (small eye). These can have serious effects on a child’s vision.
  • Miscarriage or fetal death: Although not a birth defect, a pregnancy loss can have a devastating effect on a family.

Other major congenital malformations have also been associated with exposure to VOCs during pregnancy.

A study published in Environmental Health shared that in addition to birth defects, connections have been found between exposure to the contaminants at Camp Lejeune and certain childhood cancers, including leukemia and lymphoma.

It’s important to note that research regarding the health effects of the water contamination and vapor intrusion at Camp Lejeune is still ongoing. It may be many years before we know the severity of the toxic effects on service members and their families.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022

President Biden recently signed into law the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022. This law was passed as part of a larger bill known as the Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act of 2022 (or Honoring our PACT).

This bill allows people harmed by toxic exposures at Camp Lejeune to file lawsuits against the federal government related to the health effects they have experienced.

Normally, the U.S. government can claim immunity from a lawsuit. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 prevents the government from claiming immunity, allowing victims to file lawsuits against it for the effects of these toxic exposures.

People may be eligible to bring lawsuits if they were exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between August 1, 1953 and December 31, 1987. This includes in-utero exposure. Because this bill was signed into law recently, it’s too soon to know the likely outcomes of these specific lawsuits.

mother playing with her child

The Birth Injury Center Can Help

Those who have suffered health effects that have been associated with the toxic chemicals present at Camp Lejeune may be able to receive a financial settlement, which can help cover medical bills and other costs associated with these health problems.

If you were at Camp Lejeune while pregnant during the time period of 1953 to 1987, and your child was born with a birth defect or developed childhood leukemia or lymphoma, it could be within your rights to file a lawsuit against the federal government.

Contact the Birth Injury Center for a free case review to determine whether you may be eligible to file.

Written by:
Birth Injury Center Team

The Birth Injury Center aims to create informational web content and guides to help women and their families seeking support and guidance for birth injuries caused by medical negligence. All of the content published across The Birth Injury Center website has been thoroughly investigated and approved by medical expert Natalie Speer, RNC-OB, Attorney Ryan Mahoney.