Government Study Shows Cancer Rates Higher at Marines Corp Camp Lejeune

In January 2024, the U.S. government released a long-anticipated Camp Lejeune study that reveals that Marine Corp personnel stationed at the North Carolina base camp from 1975-1985 have at least a 20% higher risk of getting cancer than personnel from other military camps.

Person in military drinking water

ByCarolyn Casey, J.D.

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Published on March 21, 2024

Person in military drinking water

Counsel for plaintiffs in the growing Camp Lejeune lawsuits have been trying to get a North Carolina federal judge to force the government to provide the report during discovery. When the litigants learned that the agency that conducted the investigation was getting ready to release it, they dropped their efforts on the study release with the court.

Contaminated Water Discovered Years Ago in Camp Lejeune

Camp Lejeune, built on the North Carolina coast, has been an operating military base camp since 1942. The Marine Corps found volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in two of the eight water treatment plants that provided drinking water at its Base Camp Lejeune back in 1982.
The Corps did not notify former Camp Lejeune residents of the toxic exposure until 1999.

Industrial solvents had contaminated the camp’s water from the early 1950s to 1985. The contamination came from a poorly maintained fuel depot, indiscriminate dumping on the base, and a local dry cleaner.

Before the military shut down the wells, military personnel and their families used the tainted water daily for drinking, cooking, and bathing. The water system piped the bad water to locations across the base – including barracks, offices, family housing, kid’s schools, and the onsite hospital.

New Report Findings

The January 2024 paper from the The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a sister agency of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is one of the largest studies ever to assess cancer risk by evaluating a group living and working in one U.S. area compared to a like group from another U.S location. The agency had done previous studies on Camp Lejeune’s water problems.

Here, the ATSDR analyzed about 211,000 people with cancer who either worked or were stationed at Camp Lejeune (CL Group) between 1975 and 1985. The research team then compared the Camp Lejeune group to about 224,000 people (CP Group) from Camp Pendleton located in California during the same time period. (Camp Pendleton was not known to have contaminated water at that time).

The research showed that the CL Group had a higher risk for some cancers including types of leukemia and lymphoma as well as breast, lung, thyroid, throat, and lung cancers. The civilians in the CL Group who worked at Camp Lejeune also had a higher cancer risk but fewer cancers.

Although each group had about 12,000 people with malignant cancers, the CL group had higher incidences and higher risks for several specific cancer types. The new study may lead to thyroid cancer being added to the diseases that may merit compensation for Camp Lejeune personnel and their families.

Federal Laws Passed to Open Doors for Lawsuits and Benefits Claims

CLJA

In August 2022, Congress passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act (CLJA). The CLJA made it possible for people who used the bad water at the base to file claims despite a North Carolina law that imposed a ten-year statute of limitations. The state statute had kept victims -- who did not know the cause of their cancer until ten years after their exposure – from filing lawsuits.

The CLJA also removed other legal barriers that had prevented veterans and their families from seeking damages from the government over Camp Lejeune’s contaminated water.

The deadline for filing a lawsuit under the CLJA is fast approaching. Claimants must file by August 10, 2024, or 180 days after the government denies the claim, whichever is later.

A Camp Lejeune victim must first go through an administrative claim process before they can go to court. People who were exposed to water at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987, for at least thirty days are eligible to seek compensation under CLJA.

PACT Act

In 2023, the Honoring Our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act (PACT), a larger bill related to the CLJA, became law. PACT removed the government's blanket immunity defenses for liability for Camp Lejeune claims and lawsuits.

However, plaintiffs’ counsel, the government, and judges continue to disagree on the question of whether the PACT guarantees a right to a jury trial, versus a trial before a judge.

Pending Lawsuits

Today, there are about 1,500 Camp Lejeune lawsuits pending in the Eastern District of North Carolina. Plaintiffs say the Marine Corps failed to protect the health of its personnel and delayed investigations of the problematic water at the military base. The government claims that the problematic wells were shut down before federal regulations for the cancer-causing chemicals were finalized.

2024 could mark the start of the “bellwether” trials for mass tort litigation. These initial trials will likely focus on leukemia, Parkinson’s disease, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, bladder cancer, and kidney cancer claims. The liability and damages for all Camp Lejeune victims suffering from these cancers hang in the balance as the outcomes of initial trials typically affect downstream trials.

A co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs in the multidistrict litigation, Ed Bell of the Bell Legal Group, says 2024 will be “critical” because he anticipates the first Camp Lejeune cases getting to trial.

Veterans have also filed 15,000 administrative claims

VOCs at Camp Lejeune

Earlier studies on the two Camp Lejeune water treatment plants showed excessive levels of VOCs. Tetrachloroethylene, also known as perchloroethylene (PCE), was identified as the main contaminant found in the water at the Tarawa Terrace water treatment. At its peak in 1985, the PCE levels in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune were forty-three times greater than the EPA limit.

Over at the Hadnot Point treatment plant, the main contaminant trichloroethylene (TCE). In 1982, the levels of TCE in the drinking water peaked at 280 times the EPA limit. Other VOCs found at Hadnot Point included PCE, benzene, trans-1,2-dichloroethylene (DCE), and vinyl chloride (VC).

Prior ATSDR studies found that there is sufficient evidence that the VOCs found in Camp Lejeune water cause cancer and cardiac birth defects. Specifically, PCE causes bladder cancer while TCE causes kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cardiac birth defects. Benzene causes non-Hodgkins lymphoma and leukemia. While VC causes liver cancer.

What Kinds of Cancers Did Camp Lejeune Water Cause?

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states that there is evidence of a link between a list of health conditions and exposure to chemicals identified in Camp Lejeune drinking water and the MACS New River during August 1, 1953-December 31, 1987 (the Time Period). The VA’s 8 Camp Lejeune presumptive conditions are adult leukemia, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes, bladder cancer, kidney cancer, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, or Parkinson’s disease.

ATSDR studies have also shown links between one or more of the contaminants in the camp’s water and additional forms of cancer, liver cirrhosis, Hodgkin’s disease, aplastic anemia, impaired immune system function, neurological problems, miscarriage, fetal death, and various birth defects.

Camp Lejeune’s Victims

For years during the Time Period, women on the base experienced repeated miscarriages, stillbirths, and other birth defects. One male vet says he spent years wondering why his daughter, conceived, and born at the base, died of leukemia at nine. Another marine vet who is now sixty-five says she had a stillbirth and nine miscarriages. “

There’s a chilling visual reminder of this dirty little secret in a cemetery near the base. One section of the cemetery was known as "Baby Heaven," home to dozens of infant graves.

Men born on the base have developed breast cancer, a disease rarely found in males.

About the author

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey, J.D.

Carolyn Casey is a seasoned professional with extensive experience in legal tech, e-discovery, and legal content creation. As Principal of WritMarketing, she combines her decade of Big Law experience with two decades in software leadership to provide strategic consulting in product strategy, content, and messaging for legal tech clients. Previously, Carolyn served as Legal Content Writer for Expert Institute, Sr. Director of Industry Relations at AccessData, and Director of Product Marketing at Zapproved, focusing on industry trends in forensic investigations, compliance, privacy, and e-discovery. Her career also includes roles at Iron Mountain as Head of Legal Product Management and Sr. Product Marketing Manager, where she led product and marketing strategies for legal services, and at Fios Inc as Sr. Marketing Manager, specializing in eDiscovery solutions.

Her early legal expertise was honed at Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, where she developed legal strategies for mergers, acquisitions, and international finance matters. Carolyn's education includes a J.D. from American University Washington College of Law, where she was a Senior Editor for the International Law Journal and participated in a pioneering China Summer Law Program. She also holds an AB in Political Science with a minor in art history from Stanford University. Her diverse skill set encompasses research, creative writing, copy editing, and a deep understanding of legal product marketing and international legal trends.