WASHINGTON — Federal health officials have determined that water contamination at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune exceeded safe levels as far back as August 1953, four years earlier than previous findings.
The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry also found that water had been contaminated at two additional water distribution systems on the base.
“This a big deal,” said Jerry Ensminger, a retired Marine master sergeant who was stationed at Lejeune and whose daughter died of a rare form of leukemia in 1985 at age 9. “You’re talking tens of thousands of more people being exposed.”
Confirming the presence of human carcinogens on the base as far back as 1953 will expand the eligibility of veterans and family members who can receive health benefits under the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012, said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who introduced the legislation.
“There are veterans out there, some of them in dire straits, who have been waiting a long time for these findings,” Burr said in a statement. “Until now, (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) has been unable to help them.... we owe them the care they need without delay.”
President Barack Obama signed the Camp Lejeune law in August. It provides health care for people who lived or worked at the base from 1957 to 1987 and have a condition listed within the bill that is linked to exposure to dangerous chemicals. Now, those who lived or worked on the base starting in 1953 should also be eligible.
At the time of the signing, it was estimated that 750,000 Marine veterans and family members may have been exposed to drinking water that was poisoned with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and vinyl chloride. Some medical experts have linked the contamination to birth defects, childhood leukemia and a variety of other cancers.
Despite its previous contention that there was insufficient evidence to prove the illnesses were related to service at Camp Lejeune, the Marine Corps has pledged its support of the new law.
On Friday, the corps said it supports the federal disease registry findings and that the Marines are continuing to seek those who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune during that time.
Burr, along with Sen. Kay Hagan and former Rep. Brad Miller, both North Carolina Democrats, has advocated strongly for the government to help the sick Marines and their families.
The toxic substances and disease registry is planning to release additional findings regarding its investigation at the base. In a letter to Veterans Affairs, registry director Christopher Portier said the agency plans to release two studies this spring: on mortality, and on birth defects and childhood cancers.