Contaminated Water from 50 Years Ago Signals Growing Problems Nationwide

To join the U.S. Armed Forces is to acknowledge certain potential dangers. But those dangers shouldn’t include drinking the water on a military base.

Unfortunately, a growing number of men formerly stationed on a North Carolina military base in the late 1970s have developed non-alcoholic fatty liver disease along with other serious illnesses – and groundwater contamination from over 50 years ago is likely a significant factor.

What’s going on with American’s groundwater, how many people might be affected and what type of health problems are they potentially faced with?

Camp Lejeune: Where It All Began

Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune is a 246 square mile military training facility in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Built in 1941, the camp is located between two deep-water ports, making it a major training facility for amphibious assault.

However, Camp Lejeune is also known for something else: bad water. Individual accounts from many different men stationed at the camp decades past paint a clear and disturbing picture of water contamination allowed to fester for decades.

Marine veteran Paul Coater recently detailed his story to Discover Magazine. In 2010, the Kentucky retiree was diagnosed with stage-four cirrhosis, a condition normally associated with alcoholism. But the cause of Coater’s illness was mysterious. Otherwise healthy for his age, Coater’s yearly alcohol consumption consisted of basically two glasses of wine every New Year’s Eve. Searching for answers, he met with Matthew Cave, a liver health specialist from the University of Louisville.

Meanwhile, two men in North Carolina had similar stories, which they shared with North Carolina’s Star News Online. Wayne Rummings served as a medic at Camp Lejeune in the late 1980s. In 2010, after suspecting kidney stones, Rummings learned he had kidney cancer.

Joe Walker’s experiences with Camp Lejeune were even more concerning. He not only served at the camp from 1972 through 1974, he also lived there as a child from 1964 through 1967. Today, Walker is ravaged by multiple scoliosis, confined to a wheelchair and likely only has a few years left to live.

A Sickness Spreads over Time

For over 70 years, damage from the contaminated water of Camp Lejeune has slowly crept into the lives of almost one million people located all across the country, causing a variety of horrific health problems the extent of which is still being uncovered.

After decades of questions, denials and bureaucracy, this much is clear: Between 1953 and 1987, the base’s groundwater was contaminated with military fuel and dry-cleaning chemicals. Everyone who drank, bathed in, cooked with or otherwise used the water on base was exposed to benzene, trichloroethylene and vinyl chloride.

And the number of people affected was not small. During those 34 years, approximately 900,000 lived on the base. But life on a military base is often temporary. Over the years, many moved away to settle in cities and towns across America.

Decades Later, a Sudden Increase in Mysterious Health Problems

Starting roughly around 2010, former residents of Camp Lejeune began to develop health problems. In many cases, the diseases discovered didn’t typically match the lifestyle and health history of the individual. For instance, stage-four liver cirrhosis it typically found in heavy drinkers, not virtual teetotalers like Paul Coater.

News reports began to appear detailing a history of contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. As former residents learned of their potential exposure to toxins, a grim picture started to emerge. Harmful chemicals from decades ago were likely playing a role in the health problems developing today.

A Slow Response from the VA

In March, 2017, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs officially acknowledged the problem and allowed for an expedited claims process. Groundwater contamination was now automatically assumed to be the cause of eight different conditions for any veteran stationed on the base between 1953 and 1987.

The eight presumptive illnesses include adult leukemia, aplastic anemia, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and Parkinson’s disease. All active duty, Reserve and National Guard members who spent at least 30 days total at Camp Lejeune and have one or more of those eight conditions are eligible to apply for disability benefits – no additional proof of cause is required.

The Future of Those Affected

The VA described these new benefits as “historic.” Totaling over $2 billion, these are only a few of the benefits made available for former military personnel who weren’t deployed for war.

Roughly one year after announcing the rule change, about 4,500 veterans were granted benefits for a presumptive condition. By 2020, the estimated caseload of Camp Lejeune veterans, reservists and survivors is expected to exceed 23,000. (source)

Progress has undeniably been made. But is it too little, too late? People have already died due to the infected water, including 9-year-old Janey Ensminger, whose father was stationed on the base in the 70s and 80s. Additionally, many current survivors, such as Joe Walker, face a real risk of dying before their benefits can be granted, as VA processing times average 302 days.

Plus, not every person regularly on a military base is in the military. Plenty of civilians during those years had regular exposure to the base water. Unfortunately, they’re not covered by VA benefits, although traditional disability might be an option.

How Safe is Your Drinking Water?

Camp Lejeune was hardly the only place in the country which used fuel and had dry cleaning facilities. A lack of regulations and a lack of knowledge decades ago means nobody really knows the extent of groundwater contamination across the country today. For instance, a cancer-causing solvent called trichloroethylene was recently discovered in the drinking water of over 14 million Americans across 36 states.

As Camp Lejeune illustrated, health problems related to water contamination can take decades to develop. The contamination period at the camp could be precisely determined, and records of former residents were relatively intact, so in this case the relationship between the water and the diseases was relatively simple to determine.

But tracking the effects of potentially dangerous drinking water across much larger regions such as cities and towns is far more complicated. Time passes, people move and connections between the environment and larger health patterns become increasingly difficult to make.

The effects of contaminated water can take a long time to develop. Unfortunately, hidden dangers in our drinking water likely extend beyond the borders of Camp Lejeune. And as that case has shown, when solutions and treatment procedures are delayed, the effects can be catastrophic.

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