The Associted Press
WASHINGTON - The Marine Corps is trying to notify the parents of an estimated 10,000 children born at Camp Lejeune, N.C., between 1968 and 1985 that they may have consumed water contaminated with compounds that have been linked to birth defects and childhood cancers such as leukemia.
The substances, believed to have come from a dry cleaning business, were found in 1982 in drinking water systems that supplied houses on Camp Lejeune, although the wells were not capped until 1985.
Camp Lejeune is the largest Marine Corps base in the eastern United States.
Based on a relatively small sampling of Camp Lejeune families, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a report in 1998 identifying a potential link between the contaminated water and birth defects.
Last year, the agency started notifying previous residents of Camp Lejeune in order to survey their health histories. But so far they have reached only 6,500 of the 16,500 families that may have been exposed to the contaminated water.
Col. Michael Lehnert, who heads the Marine Corps facilities and services division, told a Pentagon news conference yesterday that some Marine Corps families who lived in base housing at Camp Lejeune have "raised serious questions about their children's health" in relation to the drinking water problem.
Lehnert noted that some have questioned why the Marines waited so long to attempt to reach the full population of families that may be affected.
"That is a valid concern," he said. "It would be virtually impossible for me or anyone else to go back and analyze the many decisions that were made with regard to this situation since 1985. What I can tell you is that I truly believe that the decisions that were made were based upon the best information that science could provide at that time."
The contaminants in question are tetrachloroethylene (PCE), also called perchloroethylene, and trichloroethylene (TCE). They are commonly used in dry cleaning, as degreasing agents in the metal processing industry, as solvent and extractant in the chemical and textile industry, and in the production of dyes and rubber.
Dr. Wendy Kaye, chief of epidemiology at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, told the Pentagon news conference that several previous studies of health effects of these two compounds on unborn children have indicated links to birth defects and childhood cancers such as leukemia.
"So there is some concern about an increased risk," she said.
The Marine Corps' awareness of a water contamination problem at Camp Lejeune dates back at least to October 1980 when an Army environmental team sampled the water distribution systems there and discovered unidentified chlorinated hydrocarbons, pollutants of which PCE and TCE are two examples.
According to an official Marine Corps chronology of the contamination issue, "it is unknown" whether the contamination found in the 1980 testing was reported to Camp Lejeune officials.
Kaye's agency wants to survey the additional 10,000 Marine Corps families it has not yet reached. Based on the results, the agency may conduct a health study to learn more about the risks associated with exposure, she said.
The Marines have had trouble finding the families. They have established a toll-free telephone number (800-639-4270) and a link on the Marines' website, http://www.usmc.mil, for information about the issue.