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Fall 2009 Vol. 9 Number 2

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Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Andrew J. Carlson Camp Lejeune’s Contaminated Drinking Water

From the 1950s through the mid-1980s two water-supply facilities at Camp Lejeune Marine Base in North Carolina were contaminated with various toxic industrial solvents. Among the pollutants were perchloroethylene (PCE) — which entered the groundwater as a result of spills and improper disposal practices by an offbase dry cleaner — and trichloroethylene (TCE) from on-base spills and leaks from underground storage equipment.

After the contamination was discovered in the 1980s, considerable public controversy grew over the potential health consequences, which included various cancers and diseases. To date, few studies on the population have been performed. In order to supplement those studies and help better inform officials addressing health claims, Congress asked the National Research Council to examine whether there was a link between the past contamination and adverse health effects experienced by members of the Camp Lejeune community.

The Research Council found that evidence does exist that people at Camp Lejeune during that time frame were exposed to TCE and PCE in their water supplies, but strong scientific evidence is not available to determine whether health problems among those exposed are due to the contaminants.

Because additional research will unlikely provide definitive information on whether exposure resulted in health problems, the committee that wrote the report recommended that whatever actions officials need to take concerning the exposure should not wait until new health studies are completed. They should undertake appropriate action in light of the limited information that indicates exposure to toxic contaminants occurred and may have affected the health of the population.

“Even with the latest scientific advances, the complex nature of the Camp Lejeune contamination, which happened decades ago, and the limited data on the concentrations in water supplies allow for only crude estimates of exposure,” said committee chair David Savitz, professor in the department of community and preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Therefore, the committee could not determine reliably whether diseases and disorders experienced by former residents and workers are associated with their exposure to the contaminated water.”

The ability to determine the levels of exposure at Camp Lejeune is complex because people could have been exposed at home, school, daycare, or work. Studies specifically on the population have addressed only reproductive health outcomes, and the quality of exposure information restricts their value, the report states. The inability to study exposure and health outcomes accurately would be a serious limitation in any future research. — Jennifer Walsh

  Contaminated Water Supplies at Camp Lejeune: Assessing Potential Health Effects. Committee on Contaminated Drinking Water at Camp Lejeune, Board on Environmental Sciences and Technology, Division of Earth and Life Studies (2009, 338 pp.; ISBN 0-309-13699-7; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-6246242; $68.00 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by David A. Savitz, Charles W. Bluhdorn Professor, department of community and preventive medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, New York City. The study was funded by the U.S. Navy.

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Copyright 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences