On August 10th, 2022, President Biden of the United States signed The Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act into law. The PACT Act was designed to improve access to healthcare and benefits for servicemembers who were exposed to dangerous toxins and chemicals during their service. The act improves healthcare coverage for soldiers who were exposed to Agent Orange, radiation, or burn pit fumes.

While the majority of exposures to toxic substances occurred while soldiers were serving abroad, tens of thousands of soldiers and their loved ones were exposed to deadly substances while stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. In this article, we discuss the conditions that led to Camp Lejeune’s water-related problems, what health risks the base’s toxic water can pose, and what steps have been taken to provide remedies for the situation.

What Issues Affected Camp Lejeune’s Water Supply?

Marine Barracks Camp Lejeune was originally commissioned in 1941 as a Marine warfighting platform. The base was created to fulfill an urgent need for an East Coast amphibious training facility to prepare troops for conflict in World War II. Troops began arriving at the Marine base for training in 1942 and the facility remains open to the present day, albeit under the name “Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.”

Unfortunately, over a period spanning more than 30 years, multiple on-base water treatment facilities became contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Camp Lejeune’s water supplies were compromised by multiple sources of toxins: dangerous waste disposal techniques, leaking storage tanks, improperly stored chemicals, and an off-base dry cleaning business all contributed to the base’s problems.

Why Are VOCs Problematic?

VOCs are characterized by high vapor pressure and low solubility in water. Consuming VOCs can cause life-threatening medical complications for humans and other living creatures. The American Lung Association notes that VOCs can “irritate the eyes, nose and throat, cause difficulty breathing and nausea, damage the central nervous system and other organs… [and] cause cancer.” In particular, water containing VOCs at a ratio greater than 1 could cause health complications if a person were to drink or use the contaminated water over a period of many years.

Unfortunately, Camp Lejeune’s water supply contained VOCs at significantly higher ratios than was safe for human consumption. Benzene, a cancer-causing carcinogen, was discovered in the base’s water supply in concentrations as strong as 2,500 µg/L. From 1953 to 1987, dangerously toxic water was used by soldiers and their families for drinking, bathing, cooking, and cleaning.

What Were Camp Lejeune’s Most Dangerous Water Sources?

Over the three-decade span that Camp Lejeune experienced problems with toxins, three on-base water distribution systems supplied most family units and shared spaces. These water distribution systems were Hadnot Point, Tarawa Terrace, and Holcomb Boulevard. Of the three water distribution systems, Holcomb Boulevard’s water was generally safe for human use and consumption. Finished water produced by that water distribution system only ever failed tests for dangerous levels of trichloroethylene (TCE).

TCE-contaminated water was only present at Holcomb Boulevard when the system was down for maintenance. Water from Hadnot Point was used in lieu of Holcomb Boulevard’s product during that timeframe. The water supplies at Hadnot Point and Tarawa Terrace contained multiple deadly substances that made them unfit for human use, thus putting residents that relied upon Holcomb Boulevard at risk when the latter’s water supply was supplemented by another station.

What Health Complications Can VOC-Contaminated Water Cause?

Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water supply did not become public knowledge until the 1980’s. As such, veterans and their families were almost entirely unaware that the water they were drinking and bathing in was highly toxic. Anyone that lived at the base for a thirty-day period or longer between 1953 and 1987 is at risk of health complications. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Camp Lejeune’s water was capable of causing:

  • Liver cancer
  • Bladder cancer
  • Kidney cancer
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Aplastic anemia
  • Multiple myeloma
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Adult leukemia

The water was also capable of causing serious harm to women who were exposed to it. Studies have connected the presence of VOCs with miscarriages and birth defects. It is suspected that Camp Lejeune’s toxic water contributed to the deaths of hundreds of young children and infants. A cemetery near the base became known as “Baby Heaven,” due to the sheer amount of young lives that perished at and around the compound.

One of the potential contributing factors to the loss of so many lives is that one of the base’s former nurseries (in use from 1957-1982) was previously a pesticide storage and dispensary building. Leaking storage tanks and improper containment of chemicals meant that the former nursery was extremely hazardous to human life.

When Was Action Taken to Address Camp Lejeune’s Water Supply?

Over the years, several investigations were launched to determine whether Camp Lejeune’s water supply was safe for general use. On October 21, 1980, the U.S. Army Environmental Hygiene Agency collected water samples at Camp Lejeune for testing. The report concluded that the water was “highly contaminated” with “low molecular weight halo-generated hydrocarbons.” Despite further warnings on the quality of the base’s water by the agency, corrective actions were not taken to address the situation.

In 1981, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report on the base’s water problems was presented to Marine officials at Camp Lejeune. After the report, Grainger Laboratories was contracted to perform a follow-up investigation into the EPA’s claims. Grainger Laboratories confirmed the findings of the initial EPA report and, again, brought a warning to Marine officials. Still, no corrective actions were taken at this point.

In 1984, yet another report was released. The EPA reviewed the base’s water supply and reiterated previous concerns about the health of anyone consuming it. After this report was delivered, Marine officials began to shut down the contaminated wells. However, some of the affected wells remained in use until 1987.

Present-Day Efforts to Support Camp Lejeune Victims

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the PACT Act was passed into law in 2022. One of the components of the broader PACT Act is the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, which allows victims to sue the federal government for relief over harm caused by the base’s toxic water. Victims who can demonstrate that they were exposed to the contaminated water for thirty days or longer between 1953 and 1987 may be able to recover damages for:

  • Loss of wages during treatment or recovery
  • Pain, disability, and suffering
  • Reduced quality of life
  • Past, ongoing, and future medical expenses
  • Specialized medical therapies or treatments
  • Loss of future earnings and benefit

Although the PACT Act provides monetary relief for Camp Lejeune residents, there can be no understating the suffering victims faced over years of exposure to the deadly water. Hopefully, tragedies of this nature are caught and prevented through proactive safety measures in the future.