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Camp Lejeune Water Contamination - History, Legislation, & Compensation

Camp Lejeune Lawsuit Guide: Water Contamination, Illness & Compensation

Camp Lejeune is a U.S. Marine Corps Base established in 1952 in North Carolina. It’s home to active-duty military and their families, veterans, and civilian employees. Camp Lejeune is a community complete with everything anyone working, training, and living there could need, such as shopping centers, childcare, education services, restaurants, fitness centers, banks, and a library.

While Camp Lejeune is a state-of-the-art training center for U.S. Marines, in recent years, it’s become known as the center of one of the worst water contamination crises in the country. Between 1953 and 1987, Marines and their families at Camp Lejeune drank, bathed in, and cooked with severely contaminated water. The volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other chemicals found in the Camp Lejeune water supply have led to serious chronic health conditions and taken the lives of children and adults. While the discovery of VOCs in the water at Camp Lejeune happened in the early 1980s, it was kept quiet for almost 20 years.

Now, people who developed certain cancers and other health conditions and the families of those who died from these diseases can file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit seeking compensation from a government that failed them for years. After some revisions and a stalemate in the Senate, the Honoring Our PACT Act (PACT Act), which includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act, was finally approved on Tuesday, August 2, 2022. President Biden signed the PACT Act into law on Wednesday, August 10, 2022, allowing Camp Lejeune lawsuits to move forward.

The Camp Lejeune Justice Act allows military members, their family members and civilians who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune for a cumulative 30 or more days to file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit and hold the government accountable for the devastating health effects they’ve suffered. With around one million people exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, the enormity of this disaster will become much clearer in the coming year.

History of Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune

Unfortunately, the events prior to and following the discovery of VOCs and carcinogenic chemicals in the water at Camp Lejeune have shown serious failures by the government and certain authorities on the base.

In the 1970s, Camp Lejeune was ordered to properly dispose of solvents, but they didn’t, and it caused harmful chemicals to infiltrate the Camp Lejeune water. And in 1982, VOCs were found in the water supply for the first time, yet it wasn’t until 1985 that the most contaminated wells were shut down.

The history of Camp Lejeune water contamination highlights failures to act and the government’s slow response to the discovered toxic substances. But it also reveals the efforts to keep the dangers quiet, ultimately putting more civilians, Marines and Naval personnel at risk.

Timeline of Camp Lejeune Water Crisis

Veterans, their loved ones, and civilians who spent time at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina have struggled for decades with severe medical conditions from contaminated water. Illnesses range from Parkinson’s disease to kidney failure, several forms of cancer, miscarriages and birth defects.

The water contamination came from two of the base’s water treatment plants between 1953 and 1987. Toxic substances found in the Camp Lejeune water included volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and benzene. Learn more about when and where the Camp Lejeune water got contaminated with toxic substances through our comprehensive Camp Lejeune water contamination timeline.

1941:  Construction of Camp Lejeune, named in honor of the 13th Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, John A. Lejeune, begins in Onslow County, North Carolina. It includes the early housing development, Hadnot Point, and the Hadnot Point water system. The Hadnot Point water system is the first of two water systems on the base recognized as causing the Camp Lejeune water contamination disaster.

1952: The housing development, Tarawa Terrace, begins operations, including its water treatment system, the second of the two systems that became contaminated.

1953: This is the year Hadnot Point’s drinking water system was affected by toxic chemicals. The contamination primarily resulted from leaking underground storage tanks as well as oil and other waste disposed of improperly, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).

1957: According to ATSDR, the Tarawa Terrace water treatment system is contaminated by toxins from the neighboring business ABC One-Hour Cleaners.

1972: Another water treatment system, the Holcomb Boulevard Water System, begins operations, and because Hadnot Point supplied Holcomb Boulevard intermittently, people in these areas may have suffered exposure to toxins in the Camp Lejeune water.

1979-1980: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) releases its standards for THMs, a by-product of drinking water disinfection, and also recommended drinking water levels for TCE, a solvent used in the dry cleaning industry.

1982-1984:  The Navy begins an environmental cleanup program at Camp Lejeune and as part of the effort, water wells near the known contaminated sites were tested.

1985-1987: The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) moves forward with the time-consuming process of removing contaminated wells from service. The process takes more than two years to complete (therefore Dec. 31, 1987, ends the eligibility period under the Camp Lejeune Justice Act for people to be eligible to file a lawsuit).

1989: The EPA names Camp Lejeune and ABC One-Hour Cleaners as Superfund Sites.

1991: The ATSDR begins a multi-year look at the risk to children whose mothers were exposed to contaminated water during pregnancy at Camp Lejeune.

1998 The ATSDR study on the health of children (children born between 1968-1985 whose mothers drank the contaminated water) is published with the overall consensus being more investigations into exposure are necessary.

1999-2002: ATSDR conducts a telephone survey designed to identify selected birth defects and childhood cancers in children affected by the Camp Lejeune water. Many of the respondents are learning for the first time that they could be a victim of Camp Lejeune water contamination.

2003: ATSDR  completes its childhood cancer and birth defect survey of children who had been exposed to the contaminated water, finding 106 children had specific birth defects and cancers.

2004: The Commandant of the Marine Corps forms a panel to look into the handling and the decision-making concerning the toxic water at Camp Lejeune (The panel determined that “the Marine Corps acted responsibly.’’).

2007: The USMC launches a notification and registration campaign for former residents to sign up for more information about water contamination by telephone or internet.

2008: President George W. Bush signs the 2008 National Defense Authorization Act requiring the Department of the Navy to conduct a health survey of people exposed to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune.

2009: An Iowa woman becomes the first person to file a lawsuit against the United States government over Camp Lejeune’s water contamination. Laura Jones, a wife of a former marine, lived at Camp Lejeune from 1980 to 1983. Her lawsuit alleges the exposure to the toxins led her to be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

2012: President Barack Obama signs the Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act (Janey Ensminger Act), making it possible for military service members impacted by the water contamination to more easily receive health care through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). Any veteran who served on active duty at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days between January 1, 1957, and December 31, 1987, and their family members, could receive medical services if they suffered from any of 15 listed cancers and other illnesses or conditions.

The illnesses were: esophageal cancer, breast cancer, kidney cancer, multiple myeloma, renal toxicity, female infertility, scleroderma, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, bladder cancer, leukemia, myelodysplastic syndromes, hepatic steatosis, miscarriage and neurobehavioral effects.

2017: An additional $2 billion is made available to veterans, reservists, and National Guard members who were impacted by the water contamination. To receive the disability assistance, the individual has to be suffering from one of eight diseases, including kidney cancer, liver cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, adult leukemia, multiple myeloma, Parkinson’s disease, aplastic anemia and other myelodysplastic syndromes or bladder cancer.

2021: The Camp Lejeune Justice Act is introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and allows certain individuals to sue and recover damages for harm from exposure to contaminated water at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987.

2022: As part of the Honoring Our PACT Act 2022 (PACT Act), the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was signed into law on Wednesday, August 10, 2022. With the passing of this legislation, veterans, their families and civilians who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune from 1953 and 1987 for 30 or more days and developed certain health conditions are now able to file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit for financial compensation for lost wages, medical costs, and pain and suffering. Those who had loved ones die as a result of an illness linked to the toxins in Camp Lejeune’s water may also be able to file a lawsuit.

Closeup of water being tested in a lab for contaminants

What Toxins Were Found in Camp Lejeune Water?

North Carolina military base Camp Lejeune has gained notoriety for an unprecedented water contamination disaster that took place from 1953 to 1987. During this time, two water treatment plants on the base became contaminated with volatile organic compounds or VOCs. These compounds are found in our homes and everyday consumer products, but long-term exposure can cause serious health problems. Because it took decades for the military to close the affected plants, service members and their families, along with civilian workers, were exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Manufacturing and production workers who interact with these compounds receive ample warning about the potential dangers of exposure. The men, women, and children who lived and worked at Camp Lejeune had no idea they were putting themselves in harm’s way anytime they poured a cup of water, took a shower, or did a load of laundry. The chemicals that sickened Camp Lejeune residents aren’t meant for human consumption.

The volatile organic compounds found in the Camp Lejeune water included trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, vinyl chloride, perchloroethylene, and others. The water systems contaminated with VOCs provided the majority of water supplied to housing on the base, endangering the lives of anyone living there between 1953 and 1987. Some experts have said the contamination levels at Camp Lejeune were the highest they’ve ever seen in the U.S.

The toxins entered the Camp Lejeune water supply through improper disposal of solvents by an off-base dry-cleaning company and leaky underground fuel storage tanks. Far too often, toxins are dumped close to water supplies and are quick to infiltrate without anyone knowing; VOCs spread easily and are long-lasting.

Volatile organic compounds and other chemicals found on the Marine Corps Base are used in many ways and in several industries. They’re in household products, paints, gasoline, and industrial solvents. And some of the most dangerous VOCs found in the water at Camp Lejeune, trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene, are used to clean military machinery and weapons. Other toxins found in Camp Lejeune’s water include vinyl chloride and benzene. Vinyl chloride and benzene exposure are linked to many health issues, including various cancers.

Trichloroethylene (TCE)

Trichloroethylene, also known as TCE, is a colorless liquid chemical primarily used for industrial purposes. According to the EPA, it is most often used to clean metal parts. TCE is used as an extraction solvent for greases, oils, and waxes and in paint remover and cleaning products. Trichloroethylene is also an industrial dry cleaning solvent. The U.S. military used the chemical to degrease equipment and contaminated the soil and groundwater at Camp Lejeune.

TCE exposure can happen in several ways. Inhaling the chemical, absorbing it through the skin, and drinking it are all dangerous. One-time exposure can cause symptoms like headaches and dizziness. Frequent exposure in low doses, like at Camp Lejeune, can increase the risk of severe health conditions. TCE is classified as a known human carcinogen by the Department of Health and Human Services, and prolonged exposure increases the risk of kidney cancer. The danger is so clear that the EPA moved to ban TCE as a degreaser and dry cleaner in 2016. The agency eventually walked back the proposal.

The Hadnot Point water system, which served barracks, recreational areas, schools, and the hospital on base, had high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) in the water supply.

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)

Tetrachloroethylene is similar to trichloroethylene, and the chemicals are often used together. Other names for tetrachloroethylene include perchloroethylene, PCE, and PERC. PCE is most commonly applied as a dry cleaning chemical and was the primary contaminant at the Tarawa Terrace Treatment Plant. ABC One-Hour Cleaners, a dry cleaner near the Camp Lejeune military base, improperly disposed of the dry cleaning solvent, which led to PCE seeping into Camp Lejeune’s water supply. The septic tank system on the property also released the chemical into soil and groundwater, and PCE was also buried onsite.

The service members and their families who lived at the barracks closest to the plant drank and bathed in the water poisoned by the dry cleaning solvent. PCE is a potential carcinogen, which means there’s evidence to show it might increase cancer risk. As a result, modern dry cleaning technology aims to reduce PCE exposure.

Vinyl Chloride

Vinyl chloride is another VOC that contaminated the water at Camp Lejeune. Vinyl chloride is used in industrial and military settings to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes, cable coatings, and upholstery. PVC is commonly used in both industrial and military projects. Over three decades, about one million people unknowingly ingested and inhaled water that contained too-high levels of vinyl chloride. Short-term exposure can cause headaches, dizziness, and fatigue. Long-term exposure is far more dangerous because vinyl chloride is a known carcinogen.

Vinyl chloride exposure increases the risk of hepatic angiosarcoma, a rare liver cancer with a poor long-term prognosis. It also elevates the risk of lymphoma, leukemia, and brain and lung cancers. Some studies have found an increased risk of miscarriage and birth defects for pregnant women exposed to high levels of the chemical, and it can also cause nerve damage and immune system changes.

Benzene

Benzene is nearly everywhere. It’s one of the most common chemicals in the U.S., and it’s used to produce everything from plastics to detergents to dyes. It is produced by natural and manufacturing processes. In the 1970s, it was frequently utilized as an industrial solvent, but that’s less common today. Most people are exposed to low levels of benzene in the air from gasoline fumes, after inhaling firsthand or secondhand tobacco smoke, and other sources. Benzene is found in crude oil and used as a fuel additive. Experts theorize that benzene made it into the Camp Lejeune water supply because underground storage tanks leaked up to a million gallons of fuel into soil and water.

Low-level benzene exposure might cause symptoms like drowsiness, irregular heartbeat, headaches, and confusion. Long-term benzene exposure affects the bone marrow and red blood cells. Benzene inhalation can lead to irregular menstrual cycles and a change in ovary size in women. It is a known carcinogen linked to acute myeloid leukemia and other blood cell cancers.

Water sample and purity analysis test, liquid in laboratory glassware testing for pollution,

Impact of Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune

The impact of the Camp Lejeune water contamination is extensive; those who died or developed illnesses were military members, family members, and workers of all ages. Many stillbirths occurred, and both children and adults developed cancers and other health conditions. In some cases, close to whole families died or became severely ill.

As little as 30 days on Camp Lejeune could have led to VOC exposure levels dangerous to the body. With around one million people who were exposed, the government is expected to face thousands of Camp Lejeune lawsuits. These claims will be driven by the lack of action and communication to those at risk following the discovery of contaminants and the improper disposal practices of dangerous chemicals. They may also claim the government should have known of the risks to the water supply.

It’s unknown at this time just how many Americans who lived or worked at the North Carolina Marine Corps Base have developed illnesses or died due to the Camp Lejeune water contamination, but it is estimated that 500,000 people may have experienced significant health effects. Toxins began infiltrating the drinking water in August 1953, but the government didn’t shut down the two contaminated water systems until 1987. And while many years have passed since the Camp Lejeune water contamination occurred, medical and financial support is still needed for Camp Lejeune veterans, family members and civilians who lived and worked there.

Many of those affected by the Camp Lejeune water contamination didn’t learn about the contamination until the late 1990s. At this time, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) began researching the long-term effects of the Camp Lejeune water contamination. As the agency reached out to former Camp Lejeune residents and workers, many inflicted with cancers and other illnesses began to realize they could be sick due to their time at Camp Lejeune.

With the approval of the PACT Act and Camp Lejeune Justice Act, those affected by the Camp Lejeune water contamination can now sue the government by filing a Camp Lejeune lawsuit, and the depth of this tragedy will no doubt be further revealed.

Illnesses Associated with Camp Lejeune Lawsuits

Camp Lejeune water contamination caused serious illnesses and deaths. To many water contamination victims, the name Camp Lejeune brings an assortment of tragic scenes to mind. Some associate it with its “Baby Heaven,’’ a cemetery on site dedicated to more than 100 newborns who died at birth in the 1960s and 1970s. The deaths were due to mothers unaware of the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. They were poisoning themselves and their unborn babies by drinking, cleaning and bathing in the water.

To others, Camp Lejeune represents a place that did not adequately protect young families. A 2003 federal study concluded that the rate of neural tube defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly (a condition in which part of the brain or skull is missing), was 265 times higher in babies connected with Camp Lejeune than the national average.

Camp Lejeune is also associated with a large number of male breast cancer cases, considered rare for men to contract. According to the Washington Post, at least 73 men, most former marines, believe their bout with breast cancer comes from their time on the Camp Lejeune military base.

Here is a general list of illnesses and conditions associated with the Camp Lejeune water contamination by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (with definitions for the lesser-recognized illnesses). Victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune are suffering from or died due to these several types of cancers and other health conditions.

  • Aplastic anemia
  • Birth defects
  • Bladder cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Cardiac defects
  • End-stage renal disease
  • Esophageal cancer
  • Hepatic steatosis (also known as fatty liver disease)
  • Infertility
  • Kidney cancer
  • Leukemia
  • Liver cancer
  • Lung cancer
  • Multiple myeloma (a cancer of plasma cells)
  • Myelodysplastic syndromes
  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Odysplastic syndromes (a group of disorders caused by blood cells that are poorly formed or don’t work properly)
  • Parkinson disease
  • Renal disease
  • Scleroderma (an autoimmune connective tissue and rheumatic disease that causes inflammation in the skin and other areas of the body.)

In addition to these serious conditions, water at Camp Lejeune has also caused adverse birth outcomes like miscarriages, stillbirths and neurobehavioral effects. In fact, hundreds of babies whose mothers were exposed to contaminated water died in utero or at birth.

Some health conditions developed while victims lived at Camp Lejeune, while many others took years. Since warning signs of toxins in a water supply are fairly rare, connecting a chronic illness to VOC exposure years or decades later isn’t always quick or apparent.

There are many factors that affect the health effects of VOCs on the human body: the level of contaminants, how someone is exposed (ingested, inhaled, or contact with the skin), and the length of time and frequency of exposure. Sadly, even low concentrations of the toxins found in the water at Camp Lejeune can cause chronic health conditions, and in most cases, there aren’t any early symptoms or warning signs.

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed Camp Lejeune on the Superfund program’s National Priorities List (NPL) in 1989, it took years before many former residents learned they were at risk for debilitating illnesses from Camp Lejeune water contamination. It took even longer before the federal government implemented programs advocating for Camp Lejeune victims.

camp lejeune sign at night

Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Legislation

President Obama signed the “Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act of 2012,” also known as the Janey Ensminger Act, into law. This law allowed military service members impacted by the Camp Lejeune water contamination to more easily receive health care through the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA). It was named after a nine-year-old girl who lived at Camp Lejeune and tragically died from leukemia. The Janey Ensminger Act provided healthcare through the VA to the military and their families residing on the base. However, the legislation didn’t offer a legal avenue to file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit for damages related to health problems and illnesses caused by water contamination.

In 2017, veterans stationed at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 cumulative days between August 1953 and December 1987 began receiving disability benefits from Veterans Affairs (VA). They had to have at least one of eight specific health conditions that the Department of Veterans Affairs deemed to be related to exposure to the types of toxins discovered in the contaminated water on the base. Veterans must provide evidence of their illness to receive disability benefits, healthcare, and payments. Families can also receive healthcare if they have any of the 15 conditions identified by the VA, such as female infertility, breast cancer, and scleroderma.

Fast forward to 2022: The Camp Lejeune Justice Act combined with the Honoring Our PACT Act (PACT Act) passes. The PACT Act provides veterans exposed to toxins in the line of duty the healthcare and benefits needed when it causes injuries and health conditions.

Camp Lejeune Justice Act Passes

On Tuesday, August 2, 2022, the U.S. Senate passed the PACT Act, which includes the Camp Lejeune Justice Act. The PACT Act will enhance health care and disability benefits for veterans exposed to toxic burn pits. The Camp Lejeune Justice Act gives victims of toxic substances in the water at Camp Lejeune an important legal option. It is designed to give victims a two-year window to file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit against the federal government for their illnesses due to Camp Lejeune water contamination.

The passing of this bill is welcomed news for veterans and their families because many were worried that a re-vote of the PACT Act would not occur before the congressional recess on August 8. The PACT Act was approved by the House of Representatives in July, and the Senate passed a revised version by an 84-14 vote on June 16. But a technical error required another vote by the Senate. It was a shock to supporters of the bill, which had overwhelming bi-partisan support, when two dozen Republicans switched sides in the re-vote. The PACT Act vote on July 28 was 55-42 (with three senators abstaining), falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster. Several senators voted no on its passage, citing concerns about the legislation’s financial implications.

Another Senate vote took place on August 2, 2022, and this time the PACT Act was approved with a 86-11 vote. President Biden signed it into law on August 10, 2022. With the passing of the PACT Act and Camp Lejeune Justice Act, veterans, their family members and civilians who worked and lived at Camp Lejeune can file Camp Lejeune lawsuits.

This is a huge step towards justice for Camp Lejeune victims since no other legislation allows victims to file lawsuits against the government for water contamination on a military base. Until now, it has been challenging to do this because of an obscure North Carolina law calling for a ten-year statute of repose for claimants to file lawsuits (North Carolina is the only state to have such a law).

Filing a Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Lawsuit

With the signing of the PACT Act into law on August 10, 2022, victims of water contamination at Camp Lejeune who are seeking damages for their health condition(s) are able to file a Camp Lejeune lawsuit.

Veterans, their families and civilians who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune from 1953 and 1987 for 30 or more days and have developed certain health conditions are now able to sue the government for financial compensation for lost wages, medical costs, and pain and suffering. Also, if a loved one died as a result of an illness linked to the toxins at Camp Lejeune, you could also have a case. It’s important to note there will be a two-year statute of limitations for claims of this kind.

Previously, due to North Carolina’s Statute of Repose, lawsuits seeking damages for water contamination had to be filed within ten years. In the case of Camp Lejeune, that legislation was upheld. There were over 800 Camp Lejeune lawsuits consolidated into multidistrict litigation (MDL) that claimed plaintiffs’ illnesses were caused by contaminated water on the base. However, the case made it to the Supreme Court, and the MDL was rejected due to the Statute of Repose.

Justice and accountability are finally possible for the contaminated water disaster at Camp Lejeune. It’s past time veterans, civilian workers, and families who drank and bathed in toxic water are compensated, and justice is served.