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Toxins, cancer link probed at Marines' base

Story Highlights

• 75,000 Marines, families exposed to toxic tap water, health official said
• Chemicals in water may be carcinogens
• Children on based have had cancer and other disorders
• 850 former Camp Lejeune residents have filed legal claims
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Some 75,000 Marines and their families at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina were exposed to toxic tap water that may have caused cancer and birth defects, a federal health official testified Tuesday.

Results of a new study of the base's water were released Tuesday, the same day lawmakers heard emotional testimony from families who were affected by the water, which contained 40 times the amount of toxins considered safe by today's standards.

Camp Lejeune's water supply was polluted from 1957 until 1987 by TCE, a degreasing solvent, and PCE, a dry cleaning agent. The chemicals apparently came from a dry cleaning store near the base, according to the government. (Audio Slide Show)

The substances are possible carcinogens.

Camp kids have cancer, disorders

Jerry Ensminger, a 24-year Marine Corps veteran, said his daughter, Jane, born in 1976 at Camp Lejeune, was diagnosed with leukemia at age 6 and died at age 9.

Jeff Byron, a former Marine air traffic controller, moved with his family into base housing in 1982, three months after his first daughter Andrea was born and two years before his daughter Rachel was born.

Rachel is developmentally disabled, has spina bifida and was born with a cleft palate, he said. Andrea has a rare bone marrow syndrome known as aplastic anemia, according to Byron's testimony.

Dr. Michael Gros, a Navy obstetrician at Camp Lejeune in the early 1980s, was diagnosed with lymphoma after living in Camp Lejeune housing, he said.

Gros said he has had to give up his medical practice and his treatment has cost more than $4.5 million.

Thomas Sinks, deputy director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the reports are anecdotal and that there has been no proven link between specific cases of illness and the contaminated water.

At least 850 former Camp Lejeune residents have filed legal claims.

Pollution discovered in 1982

In 1992, federal regulators set the maximum allowable amount at 5 micrograms of PCE per liter, Sinks told CNN in a telephone interview after he testified before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

But residents at Camp Lejeune were exposed to an average of 70 micrograms of PCE per liter, with the highest levels around 200 micrograms per liter.

The contamination was discovered in 1982 in several wells that fed into two of the base's eight water systems, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal public health agency.

The agency, which has been studying the contamination since 1993, blamed leaking underground storage tanks, spills and drum disposal as well as solvent-disposal practices at an off-base dry cleaners.

The agency has also initiated a study on whether 12,000 offspring of women who drank the base's water while pregnant are at increased risk of developing certain birth defects or illnesses.

No study has been undertaken on how the Marines themselves may have been affected, Sinks said.

For the moment, the agency is recommending only that people who lived on the base from 1957 to 1987 check with their doctors.

Its Web site,, lets Marines enter the dates they lived on the base and learn about their exposure.

"The purpose of the hearing today is to get some answers," said the committee's chairman, Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, in prepared remarks.

He then ticked through a list of questions he wanted answered:

"When did the Marine Corps learn that the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, a military base with nearly 100,000 residents, was contaminated with dangerous chemicals?

"Why were the 'closed' wells not immediately capped and abandoned, but continued to be used to supply water at various points at least into 1987?

"When and how were the residents told about the contamination? Was the notification adequate?

"Did exposure to the drinking water cause cancer and birth defects in children conceived at the base? What about adults who drank the water?

"How has the Marine Corps responded to those affected? Has it taken care of its own?"

The chairman of the committee, Democratic Rep. John Dingell of Michigan, said he will examine handling of the water investigation in 2005 by the Environmental Protection Agency's criminal division.

An EPA investigator, Tyler Amon, acknowledged Tuesday that officials had considered accusing some civilian Navy employees of obstruction of justice.

Amon, who testified despite objections from the Bush administration, said some employees interviewed during the criminal investigation appeared coached and were not forthcoming with details.

Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky, the panel's ranking Republican, said he was puzzled why criminal charges weren't pursued.

"We have many people who have died," Whitfield said. "We have many people who have suffered significant health problems."



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