Many of the thousands of former Marines and family members exposed to toxins at Camp Lejeune, whose damage claims and lawsuits are currently frozen over procedural matters, are lauding a new federal study showing links to higher cancer rates that they say bolsters their cases.
The lengthy and unprecedented health study released last week by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a unit of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, looked at cancer incidence among military and civilian personnel who spent time at the base between 1953 and 1987. That’s when water supplies were contaminated with toxic chemicals from waste dumping, fuel spills and careless use of cleaning solvents.
The results confirm higher incidences of several types of cancer already suspected to be connected to the contamination — and other types not previously associated with it.
The new evidence is timely for more than 1,500 victims of the contamination who have filed lawsuits in federal court in North Carolina, with their cases expected to be heard thanks to a 2022 law passed by Congress.
When trials will start is still unclear, depending on decisions from the four federal judges in the state on two key issues — whether there should be caps on attorney fees and whether plaintiffs can request jury trials. The government wants no jury trials while plaintiffs insist they have that right, with potentially huge damage claims at stake.
Claims filed with the Navy’s Judge Advocate General’s Office, the first step Camp Lejeune victims must take before filing lawsuits in federal court, now total 166,000, the office said Friday. Victims were asking for a combined $3.3 trillion in the fall, when the claims figure was 30 percent lower than it is today.
Researchers at the CDC spent nearly 10 years combing through health records in all 50 states and U.S. territories to document cancers among nearly 155,000 former Marines, Navy personnel and civilian workers who had been stationed at or worked at Camp Lejeune between the mid-1970s and mid-1980s, using available records of the base population. The study also examined health records of more than 163,000 personnel based at Camp Pendleton in California during that time period, to compare cancer incidence among a similar population that was not exposed to tainted water.
“Increased risk of several cancers was observed among Marines and civilian workers exposed to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune compared to personnel at Camp Pendleton,” the study concluded. “In Marines and Navy personnel, increased risk was found for some types of leukemia and lymphoma, as well as for cancers of the lung, breast, larynx, esophagus, thyroid, and soft tissues. Among civilian workers, increased risk was observed for myeloid cancers and some cancers of the breast and lung.”
The higher cancer rates for past Camp Lejeune residents had long been suspected, but the study provides strong evidence of a connection between the contamination and serious health problems.
“These findings should spur the federal government — the same government that long knew about the toxic water and failed to disclose it to its servicemembers, workers, and families — to step up and support the veterans and families involved with speedy resolutions to their claims,” said Ed Bell, lead attorney for plaintiffs in the lawsuits, in an emailed statement. “This study confirms what the government has denied but we have always believed to be the case: that the water at Camp Lejeune caused those living and working there to be affected by cancer at a rate that is unheard of, four times what the average rate is.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee who helped push through the 2022 law allowing Camp Lejeune victims to file damage claims and lawsuits, also lauded the study.
“The Department of Defense and the Navy knew the drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated and failed to act, resulting in generational illness and suffering within families that never should have happened,” Takano said in a statement. “I am glad that the CDC conducted this study, to validate what we knew all along and bring clarity to veterans, civilian personnel, and their families. … I expect the Department of Justice and the Department of the Navy to move swiftly to right these wrongs out of respect for these families that have been impacted.”
Some victims of the contamination felt especially vindicated because the study found some diseases not previously linked to the contamination, including breast and esophageal cancer, occur more often among past Camp Lejeune residents.
Mike Partain, who was born at the base on Jan. 30, 1968, and was diagnosed at age 39 with breast cancer, an extremely rare disease among men, learned about the contamination in 2007 and believes that the Marine Corps was responsible for his health problems, which took years of treatment to overcome.
A 2014 study of mortality among Camp Lejeune victims did not attribute higher rates of death due to breast cancer, Partain said. “It didn’t show up in the mortality study but it sure as hell did in the cancer incidence study,” he said in an interview. “It helps 125 of us with male breast cancer and also helps those females with breast cancer” who spent time at the Marine base when the water was contaminated.
Jerry Ensminger has long believed his ex-wife’s exposure to the water at Camp Lejeune when she was pregnant in 1976 led to their daughter Janey’s death of leukemia at age 9 in 1985. Ensminger, who has a wrongful death lawsuit pending in federal court, said the study helps confirm the connection between the contamination and his daughter’s death.
Ensminger said he is proud that his efforts to get compensation for Camp Lejeune victims, a campaign he started when he first learned about the contamination in 1997, could result in the first-ever national cancer registry.
“It is absolutely ludicrous that we don’t have it,” he said in an interview. “If President Biden wants to have his moonshot to defeat cancer, then we need a one-stop shop where researchers who have a need to know can go and get the data they need to do their cancer studies. When you have a national cancer registry where these people can go in and look at the data, they can pinpoint these areas that have these high levels of these cancers, and then they can start looking for the cause.
“This is something that really needs to be highlighted to Congress and the administration,” Ensminger said.
‘Frozen right now’
Ensminger and other victims remain in limbo as the process of settling claims and lawsuits has slowed to a crawl.
“It’s frozen right now because the court is so backed up on some really, really pivotal decisions,” said Lori Freshwater, who has a lawsuit pending over the death of her mother from leukemia after she lived for years at Camp Lejeune. “Until they rule on these big things everything is just paralyzed.”
Perhaps the biggest issue is whether plaintiffs are entitled to jury trials, rather than only being allowed to have their cases heard by the federal judges in North Carolina, Freshwater said in an interview last week.
“You’re either looking at a jury of your peers, who understand what the government’s done to you, who know what it’s like to be poor and in need,” she said. “They could pick some number and say this person gets $200 million. If you have an older, conservative, white male judge trying to decide the amount of your claim, he’s not going to say $200 million. We need some jury trials so the judges understand what these cases are worth.”
Freshwater has one big hope as she awaits the judges’ ruling. “I hope if the court decides for jury trials and says the law gave us the right to a jury trial, I hope the government doesn’t appeal it,” she said. “I hope the government says, ‘OK, we took our shot, but let’s continue on with what we’ve been working on the past two years, and let’s get ready for these trials. We’re in this now, let’s make the best of it.’ Whether that will happen or not I don’t know.”
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