Camp Lejeune, North Carolina: For Immediate Release: July 16, 2003
A health survey of 12,600 children born to mothers who were pregnant between the years 1968-1985 at U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Base Camp Lejeune found 103 specific childhood cancers and birth defects, suggesting the need to further study whether contaminated drinking water on base during that time was associated with the illnesses. The contaminated wells were closed in 1985 and the water has been safe to drink since then.
The survey is the first step of a proposed epidemiological study that will determine whether exposure to drinking water contaminated by volatile organic compounds at Camp Lejeune from 1968 to 1985 led to childhood cancers and birth defects. The study is expected to be completed in 2006.
“We are in the process of verifying the diagnoses of 103 children born during this period who were reported by their parents as having one of the birth defects or childhood cancers that we are studying,” said Dr. Wendy E. Kaye, Chief of the Epidemiology and Surveillance Branch of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). “These include anencephaly, spina bifida, cleft lip, cleft palate, childhood leukemia and childhood lymphoma.”
An update on the survey, “Progress Report: Survey of Specific Childhood Cancers and Birth Defects Among Children Whose Mothers Were Pregnant While Living at USMC Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, 1968-1985,” was released today by ATSDR, a unit of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“The fact that nearly 80 percent of those eligible responded to the survey supports the likelihood that most birth defects and childhood cancers among the eligible children have been identified,” Dr. Kaye said. “The key issue now is whether the diagnoses can be confirmed for most, if not all, of the potential cases of the birth defects and childhood cancers.”
The two specific volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in the water supply at Camp Lejeune are still in use nationwide. They are TCE (trichloroethylene), which is generally used to degrease metal parts, but is also an ingredient in adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids and spot removers; and PCE (tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene), a dry-cleaning solvent.
The epidemiological study will require the computer modeling of the Camp Lejeune drinking water system over the period 1968-1985 to determine how much TCE and PCE would have been present at any time and which housing units would have received the contaminated water.
This simulation will help researchers determine which expectant mothers were exposed to volatile organic compounds in drinking water during their pregnancy. The contaminated wells at Camp Lejeune were shut down in 1985 so that the base’s water system would conform to new U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) guidelines under the National Safe Water Drinking Act. Since then, water on the base has been determined to be safe to drink.
In addition, the results of the study will provide critical information about drinking water quality to the 42 million people in the U.S. who obtain drinking water from their own private water sources. Most of this water is drawn from groundwater through wells, but some households also use water from streams or cisterns. The EPA, which does not oversee these water sources, still recommends that water from private drinking water supplies be tested annually for nitrate and coliform bacteria, and more frequently for other contaminants if a problem is suspected.
The Superfund Basic Research Center (SBRC) at Boston University calls TCE the country’s most frequently detected contaminant in groundwater, from where it continues to migrate into drinking water. Based on state and national surveys, SBRC estimates anywhere from 9 percent to 34 percent of the country’s drinking water supplies may contain TCE levels that average above federal drinking water standards.
Upgrades to municipal water systems (and systems on bases such as Camp Lejeune) and enhancements in regulation have helped minimize the likelihood of exposure to volatile organic compounds. However, people who obtain water from private drinking water sources, particularly those located near current or former industrial or commercial sites, airports, military bases, etc., should test their water supply as prescribed by the EPA and state and local environmental authorities.
Note to correspondents: A webcast, featuring Dr. Wendy E. Kaye of ATSDR and Lt. Gen. Rick Kelly, USMC, can be viewed at www.eventstreams.com/cdc/atsdr/010.