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Past Exposure to VOC-Contaminated Drinking Water at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune North CarolinaOctober 28, 2004

Past Exposure to VOC-Contaminated Drinking Water at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune North Carolina
October 28, 2004

This fact sheet answers some questions people have about the 1997 Public Health Assessment at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.


In 1997, ATSDR published a Public Health Assessment (PHA) for the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune (Camp Lejeune). A PHA is an evaluation of past, present, and future human exposure to hazardous substances in the environment. In the 1997 report, ATSDR evaluated several ways people at Camp Lejeune were exposed to hazardous substances. Three ways that occurred in the past were thought to pose a public health hazard: 1) volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in tap water, 2) lead in tap water, and 3) pesticides in soil at a former day care.


Eight on-base drinking water systems served Camp Lejeune in 1985. Until 1985, people using tap water from the Hadnot Point, Tarawa Terrace, and Holcomb Boulevard water systems were exposed to VOCs. Information shows drinking water contamination in the Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point water systems from 1982 until 1985. The contamination could have been present before 1982. Contamination in the Holcomb Boulevard system was present only for 12 days, January 27- February 7, 1985.


Why weren't adults considered for the ATSDR study? I know a lot of adults who are sick and were there at that time drinking contaminated water.

In general, ATSDR found that our estimates of VOC exposure at Camp Lejeune were several thousand times lower than levels of concern in animal studies. They were also hundreds of times lower than levels linked to health effects found in workplace studies.

More scientific information is available on health effects linked with VOC exposure in adults than on children. VOCs (TCE, PCE, methylene chloride and vinyl chloride) have been well studied in animals. There are also many reports of workplace exposures to these chemicals at high levels. There are also reports of people exposed to these VOCs in drinking water by accident.

ATSDR reviewed this information. We compared it to estimates of what people at Camp Lejeune drank and breathed (from showering). We made conclusions about health effects in adults based on the clear findings and large number of studies in the scientific literature.

How can you be so sure that potential health effects in adults are "not likely"?

Because much information is available on VOC exposure and health effects in adults, we feel confident concluding that the levels received by adults at Camp Lejeune would not likely cause health effects.

ATSDR estimated cancer risk and reviewed site-specific data on the highest VOC levels found. We compared the levels of chemicals found at Camp Lejeune with levels from human studies and animal studies. We wanted to see whether people were likely to become ill from their exposure to VOCs in drinking water at Camp Lejeune. ATSDR found that both cancer and non-cancer health effects were unlikely in adults exposed to VOC-contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune based on our worst-case estimates.

The amount of exposures depends on:

  • the concentration of VOCs,
  • the way VOCs get into the body (breathing vs. drinking),
  • the frequency of contact, and
  • the length of time exposed.

People exposed to chemicals react differently. Some have serious reactions while others may have no reaction at all. Other factors such as medications, alcohol intake, and lifestyle habits may also play a role. Because people are involved, we cannot express 100 percent certainty. We use words that convey the state of the science.

When there is a lot of information available, we are very confident about our conclusions. Since a small amount of uncertainty remains, we say that adverse health effects are "not likely" or "not expected".

Much information is available in the scientific literature to suggest that health effects in adults exposed to VOCs at Camp Lejeune are not likely or not expected. Less scientific information is available about health effects in children.

What are the health effects from Trichloroethylene (TCE)?

Even with hundreds of studies done to date, there are few strong links between TCE exposure and specific health effects. The following are some of the reasons why studies are not more certain. People are usually exposed to multiple chemicals at the same time making it hard to say which chemical may be linked with an observed health effect. Medications, alcohol intake, and lifestyle factors may also play a role. Many of the VOCs have different ways of acting in the body and they are not well understood.

Most of the human studies show high-level workplace exposures from breathing solutions containing more than 40% VOCs. This type of exposure may have a different result than exposure to drinking water containing less than 0.0002 % VOCs, as seen at Camp Lejeune. The amount of exposure depends on the level of VOCs, the way VOCs get into the body (breathing vs. drinking), the frequency of contact, and the length of time exposed. People react to VOC exposure differently. Some may have a reaction while others may have no reaction at all.

What is ATSDR?

ATSDR is a federal public health agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Created by the Superfund law, ATSDR evaluates human exposure to hazardous substances released into the environment and makes recommendations to prevent or eliminate such exposures in order to protect public health. Where appropriate, ATSDR also makes recommendations for additional follow-up health activities, such as health studies or health education.

Other Links

1997 Public Health Assessment of Camp Lejeune
The 1997 Public Health Assessment examined the presence of the chemicals in drinking water, who could have been exposed, and whether people could be harmed from coming in contact with those substances. The assessment found no link between exposure to the levels of drinking water contaminants and adverse health effects for adults but recommended further investigation for fetuses that were exposed to the contaminated drinking water.