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Camp Lejeune Water: The Newest Study

Wilmington, NC – The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry is mailing out 300,000 surveys between now and December to study the effects of water contamination at Camp Lejeune.

At the same time, an act that would allow Lejeune veterans and family members to receive health care through the VA sits in a U.S. House committee.

Between 1957 and 1987, carcinogens like benzene were leaked into the wells on base. WHQR's

Michelle Bliss attended a public forum in Wilmington last week where researchers spoke to a group of active Marines and sailors, veterans, civilians, and their families about the study.

"I spent a quarter of a century in the United States Marine Corps. No has been more disillusioned and more disappointed by the conduct of the leadership of our organization than I have been about this situation with this water."

Jerry Ensminger offered opening remarks to an audience scattered among mostly empty chairs. He's a veteran who lost his 9-year-old daughter Janey in 1985 to childhood leukemia, one of the many illnesses linked to the contamination caused by underground fuel tanks on base and a small dry cleaning business.

Less than a hundred people attended the event, a disappointing turnout for advocates like Ensminger, who don't want others to find out like he did, nearly 14 years ago.

"I had fixed a plate of spaghetti and I was walking into the living room to watch the evening news. And the reporter said that ATSDR wanted to take a look at the children who had been born at Camp Lejeune during the years of the contamination, primarily for childhood leukemia. Well, that's what my daughter died from. I dropped my plate of food right there on the floor."

Mike Partain, who drove up from Florida for the forum, shares a similar experience from 2007: a month after enduring a mastectomy to remove the 2-and-a-half centimeter tumor from his chest, Partain's phone rang. It was his father, a Vietnam vet.

"I went home and I flipped on the TV and went to CNN like he told me. And lo and behold, there was a report. It was actually Jerry testifying in front of Congress, and he was talking about the children born on the base between January, 1968 and December of 1985 and how they were exposed to human carcinogens. My birthday is January 30, 1968. You could have knocked me over with a feather."

Mary Blakely, who just happened to have her television on in the fall of 2009, now believes the tainted water is to blame for her learning disabilities and her mother's death from lung cancer.

"I was watching CNN and Mike Partain was on there with some other of the male breast cancer cluster, and I heard them mention Holcomb Boulevard on the base. I recognized that from when my family lived there in Berkely Manor because it's really close."

Ensminger, Partain, and Blakely all attended the forum and have lived aboard Camp Lejeune at some point during the thirty-year span of contamination. But figuring out the length and potency of their individual exposures is complicated.

ATSDR Director, Chris Portier, says the government agency is using a method called water modeling to create an historical reconstruction of the wells.

"Once you turn on the pumps, it changes, so you get mixing and all sorts of different things that all have to be taken into account. And then, to get it to the people sometimes this pump's turned on, sometimes that pump's turned on, it's mixed in a tank. You've got to figure out all of that to figure out what comes out the tap in the tail end."

Researchers are also sending comparison surveys to people who lived and worked at Camp Pendleton. The data will determine if a presumptive link can be made between 26 different cancers and diseases that researchers say are related to heavy benzene, tetrachloroethylene, and trichloroethylene exposure.

Even though their ailments vary, many forum attendees echo the same sense of fear and loss regarding their failing health or that of a loved one:

"I always ended up on sick call. I always managed to throw up and cough up and spew up blood and be sickly and have stomach problems and esophagus problems. In 1973, they diagnosed me with osteochondroma."

"In 1985 she had a stroke, after that, congestive heart failure, liver, and different things set in. I ended up basically with bowel disorders and nerve conditions. In 1986, my wife died."

"One day my wife gives me a hug; she finds a bump in my chest. Two weeks later, I go to the doctor and I'm sitting on my wedding anniversary being told that I have male breast cancer. Three weeks later, they cut half my chest off. I had no idea what happened to me."

That was Anthony Taylor, Ronald McKoy, and Mike Partain, once again. Along with the forum, they also attended a community assistance panel or CAP meeting.

Marine Corps spokesperson Captain Kendra Hardesty says that despite active participation in the past, the Corps only sent an observer this time.

"For many years, we actually did send a representative to the CAP meetings; however, in the recent past, it's become clear that our presence at the CAP meetings was distracting for their intended purpose."

Mary Blakely remembers one of those meetings. She jumped at the opportunity to speak up.

"I just couldn't accept that they didn't try to tell us about it, that they would actually lie about it being there. And the more that I talked, the angrier I got, and I started saying things like, You don't deserve to wear the uniform of a Marine. You're not a Marine. A real Marine is a person of honor, and what is being done is not honorable.'"

During Q/A, people asked if they had been exposed, some learning the truth for the first time. People asked how many generations could be affected researchers don't know. But most people asked if the Marine Corps would be held accountable and step up compensation if the presumptive link is proven.

Right now, the V-A doesn't have the authority to fund dependents, but it has recently consolidated the review process for all Lejeune claims to a single office. That means one staff can be trained to handle those cases properly.

ATSDR Senior Epidemiologist Frank Bove:

"Our goal right now is to do the best science we can so that these studies have credibility, so the science community takes it seriously and regulators take it seriously, for which to judge whatever actions they're going to take in terms of maybe additional regulations or whatever they plan to do."

Bove's team is also studying mortality rates, birth defects, and childhood cancers. He says that some ATSDR studies in the late 90s are inaccurate and he hopes the new research will provide a definitive say on the risks posed by the tainted water.

Marine Corps spokesperson Hardesty maintains that until researchers prove that connection, the Marine Corps has no comment.

"We're waiting for the studies to be completed before we can comment on that."

When the ATSDR releases its results, some next summer and the remainder in early 2014, participants will receive a summary and the findings will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. After that, the issue moves to regulators, legislators, and the Marine Corps to decide what happens next.

Learn more about the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's Camp Lejeune study.

Register to receive Marine Corps updates on Camp Lejeune water contamination.

Do you have insight or expertise on this topic? If so, we'd like to hear from you. Please email the WHQR News Team.


After growing up in Woodbridge, Virginia, Michelle attended Virginia Tech before moving to Wilmington to complete her Master in Fine Arts from the University of North Carolina in Wilmington. Her reporting and nonfiction writing have been featured on NPR’s All Things Considered, within the pages of Wrightsville Beach Magazine, and in literary journals like River Teeth and Ninth Letter. Before moving to Wilmington, Michelle served as the general manager for WUVT, a community radio station in Blacksburg, Virginia. She lives with her husband Scott and their pups, Katie, Cooper, and Mosey.