Thursday, January 29, 2004

Supporting The Troops

By Poisoning Their Water

Oops. Seems the military neglected to tell Marines stationed at Camp Lejeune that the water they and their families were drinking
contained 280 times the level now considered safe for drinking water -- of trichloroethylene, a likely cancer-causing chemical used for degreasing machinery that can impair the development of fetuses, weaken the immune system, and damage kidneys and livers. Other samples showed as little as 1 part per billion to as many as 104 parts per billion -- more than 20 times the level now considered safe -- of tetrachloroethylene, a toxic dry-cleaning chemical that can seep into body fat and slowly release cancer-causing compounds.
Between 50,000 and 200,000 Marines and their families lived on the base and drank the water until the wells were shut down in 1985, "which would make Camp Lejeune one of the largest contaminated-water cases in U.S. history. " Now the families are wondering why.
Already, more than 270 tort claims have been filed with the Navy's judge advocate general's office by former residents, who are required by law to file claims with the military before proceeding with any possible action in civilian courts.

One of those claims was filed by a Marine air traffic controller named Jeff Byron. Within months of the 1982 tests, Byron moved his family into base housing at Lejeune, grateful to leave behind a rickety mobile home in favor of a modest townhouse with a postage-stamp back yard. Byron and his wife, Mary, were not told about the water-sampling results, and nearly two decades would pass before they would find out about them. Now he wakes up thinking about all the frozen lemonade and apple juice he mixed with tap water for Andrea, who was born three months before he moved on base, and for Rachel, who was born two years after.

Both of his girls have been beset with a lifetime of ailments: Rachel, who is developmentally disabled, was born with a cleft palate and needed leg braces as a child. She has spina bifida; a gangly, arachnoid cyst on her spine that cannot be removed; and brittle, rotting teeth. Andrea had a rare bone marrow syndrome known as aplastic anemia and has been told by her doctors that the disease could recur if she becomes pregnant.

"I find myself asking, 'What if I hadn't joined the Marine Corps?' " said Byron, who left the military for the private sector in 1985.

No one knows for sure whether the water at Lejeune made Byron's children ill or whether it sickened thousands of other former residents -- both Marines and civilians living on base -- hundreds of whom have organized into a lobbying group known as Water Survivors. The group's members blame the contamination for a variety of ills, from chronic headaches to virulent cancers, from infertility to the incurable leukemia that claimed their children's lives.