Recent Court Decisions and CDC Findings Impact Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Cases

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Camp Lejeune's Water Contamination Litigation Evolves With New CDC Study And Recent Court Ruling

Have you ever stopped to question the safety of the water that flows from your tap each day? For most of us, it's a comfort we take for granted. However, for those connected to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, during the 1950s to the 1980s, it's a significant concern due to potential toxic water exposure.

A toxic legacy

Imagine discovering that the water in your home was laced with chemicals capable of affecting your health for the worse. This was the unfortunate reality for nearly a million people at Camp Lejeune, including Marines, sailors, their loved ones, and civilian staff. The root of this issue? A mix of industrial solvents and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), present at concentrations up to 3,400 times the limits of today’s safety standards.

The array of health conditions tied to this toxic water is both extensive and alarming. We're talking about a spectrum of health issues ranging from various cancers to neurological and reproductive problems. The history of Camp Lejeune, established amid the sandy pine forests of the North Carolina coast in the early 1940s, is marred by decades of water contamination. From the 1950s until 1985, the base's water was tainted with industrial solvents, a situation discovered in the early '80s but attributed to longstanding neglect at a fuel depot and reckless disposal practices on and off the base.

Before the contamination was addressed and the affected wells were closed, the tainted water had already flowed into barracks, offices, family housing, schools, and the base hospital. Everyone on base — military personnel and their families alike — used it for drinking, cooking, and bathing, unaware of the risks.

The water's contamination wasn't limited to negligible amounts. It included harmful VOCs like trichloroethylene (TCE), used as a degreaser, and perchloroethylene (PCE), common in dry cleaning, at concentrations alarmingly above current safety norms. The detection of other hazardous substances, such as benzene and vinyl chloride, further underscored the gravity of the situation. The exposure to these toxic chemicals has been linked to a distressing list of health issues, including a variety of cancers, neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease, and numerous reproductive challenges, among them stillbirths, infertility, and miscarriages.

A national concern

The situation with the water contamination at Camp Lejeune is not just a local issue confined to North Carolina; its repercussions are felt nationwide. The experience of every Marine who underwent training at the base, and their families, highlights the potential long-term effects of such exposure.

Individuals affected by the water at Camp Lejeune have raised concerns about the Marine Corps' ability to safeguard the health of its personnel, pointing to a delay in the federal response to the contamination. Marine Corps officials have noted that the regulations governing these harmful chemicals were not established until 1989, after the contaminated wells were closed.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), working closely with the CDC, has conducted several focused studies on the health outcomes of those at Camp Lejeune, covering issues from cancer rates to birth defects, yet these studies were preliminary compared to more recent, comprehensive research.

The enactment of the Camp Lejeune Justice Act marked a pivotal moment for those seeking redress for their health concerns. This legislation represents a step toward acknowledging and correcting past mistakes, offering a two-year period for victims to pursue claims. However, the journey toward resolution has not been without challenges.

A 2024 legal decision to exclude jury trials from these cases could hinder the ability of victims to fully argue their cases, despite suggestions that such a move could streamline the resolution process. J. Edward Bell III, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, has voiced ambivalence to Bloomberg Law, pointing out the balance between the desire for jury trials and the efficiency of judge-led decisions.

“We have fought for years and years to get jury trials…It gives people comfort knowing that they could have a jury trial,” Bell stated. “On the other hand, the way the court has fashioned the order, it may allow the courts to have faster trials and faster resolution.”

This ruling means that compensation disputes related to Camp Lejeune's water contamination will be decided by a judge, not a jury. This decision, while aimed at expediting the resolution of potentially thousands of cases, raises concerns about the dynamics of justice for those affected.

The CDC weighs in

In the midst of legal proceedings, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has undertaken a significant research study to analyze the cancer risk for those who spent time at Camp Lejeune. These findings have revealed an elevated risk of various cancers for individuals exposed to the harmful chemicals in the base's water supply. Although these findings bolster the case for affected individuals, establishing a direct link between the water contamination and cancer proves to be a complex challenge.

According to the CDC's study, military personnel who were at Camp Lejeune between 1975 and 1985 experienced a marked increase in cancer risk—over 20% higher for several types of cancer—compared to those stationed at other bases. This research is among the most extensive in the U.S. focused on evaluating cancer risks associated with living and working in an environment contaminated by pollutants. It specifically identified an increased risk for certain cancers, including leukemia, lymphoma, and cancers affecting the lung, breast, throat, esophagus, and thyroid.

David Savitz, a Brown University disease researcher, told AP News that reaching a definitive conclusion is difficult due to the passage of time and the absence of detailed records on exposure levels. Despite these challenges, the CDC's findings support the case for providing compensation and recognition to those impacted by the water issues at Camp Lejeune.

Support for those affected by Camp Lejeune water

As of February 2024, legal action regarding Camp Lejeune's water contamination has resulted in over 1,500 lawsuits and more than 166,000 administrative claims, with initial compensations already distributed. If you or your loved ones were exposed to the base's water, for drinking, bathing, or other uses, there are resources available. Legal professionals can help you in pursuing compensation and justice for any resulting health issues.

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