ATSDR Camp Lejeune Survey Executive Summary

In 1982, testing of drinking water began at U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The tests showed pollution in the drinking water at some base housing. The water had chemicals called volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are used to clean machinery and weapons and in dry-cleaning.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) released a study of the base in 1997. This study stated that exposure to VOCs probably would not cause health problems in adults. It also said another study was needed to see if such exposure at Camp Lejeune posed a threat to fetuses and infants.

ATSDR then studied Camp Lejeune to see if infants whose mothers were exposed to drinking water with VOCs were at risk for being “small for gestational age” (weighing less than the 10th percentile). This study found such a link (ATSDR 1998).

Few studies on this topic have been done. One connected drinking water tainted with VOCs to childhood leukemia (Costas 2002). Two other studies linked VOCs in drinking water to specific birth defects (Bove 1995; Goldberg 1990). Even so, whether VOCs in drinking water trigger these problems remains unclear.

ATSDR is now moving toward a full study of the birth defects and childhood cancers at Camp Lejeune. The first step was to choose which health problems to study. Existing studies and other factors were considered. ATSDR decided to focus on these conditions:

  • Childhood leukemia
  • Childhood non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Spina bifida
  • Anencephaly
  • Cleft lip
  • Cleft palate.

The second step was to identify the children eligible for the study. ATSDR decided on children born to women who were pregnant with them while living on the base during 1968 – 1985. The year 1968 is the starting point because that year North Carolina began computerizing its birth records. These records were used to identify children for the study. The end point is 1985 because the tainted wells were shut down that year.

The survey began in September 1999 and ended in January 2002. ATSDR surveyed by telephone the parents of 12,598 eligible children. This number was about 80% of the estimated total. Parents were asked if the child had had a birth defect or had developed a childhood cancer. A total of 103 cases were reported.

The third step was to confirm the children’s health problem(s). ATSDR asked the parents who said their children had health problems of interest (or the children if they were now over 18) for access to their child’s health records. These records are now under review. ATSDR has received records for 46 of the 103 children so far.

The final step will be to conduct a full study. This study will include all confirmed cases of the birth defects and childhood cancers of interest. There are enough of these cases to warrant the full study.

In summary, ATSDR has finished the survey and is now confirming the cases. These steps were needed to prepare for the larger study. Only the full study can establish whether VOC-tainted drinking water may cause the childhood health problems being studied.

Page last reviewed: July 6, 2009