For almost four decades, the ground water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, North Carolina was polluted with a toxic chemical used to degrease metal parts, dry clean clothes and even decaffeinate coffee.
In the years since, Marines and others based at Lejeune during at least ten of those years have developed Parkinson’s disease — a neurological disorder associated with exposure to that chemical — at a rate 70% than service members at other installations , according to a study funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs and published May 15 in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
The government has long known that the drinking water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) as well as tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and other chemicals from 1953 until 1987.
“Wells that provided water to the base during this period were contaminated by on-base sources, including leaking underground storage tanks, industrial spills, and waste disposal sites (largely TCE) and an off-base dry cleaning businesses (largely PCE),” wrote the authors of the study.
The base’s contaminated wells were eventually shut down when testing revealed the presence of the carcinogenic chemicals. As many as a million service members, civilian staff and family members may have been exposed to contaminated water to some degree, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
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The new study looked at the health records of veterans who had been stationed on the base between 1975 and 1985. The authors chose that time frame due to the availability of data on unit locations and because that was when TCE exposure was at its greatest. At its peak, the levels of TCE in Lejeune water was greater than 70-fold the permissible amount, according to the study.
The study compared the long-term health of Marines who had been stationed at Camp Lejeune to those stationed at Camp Pendleton, California between 1975 and 1985. Pendleton’s drinking water did not contain TCE.
The study found that 172,128 service members were stationed at Camp Lejeune during that time frame, while 168,361 service members were stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, during the same time.
For the study, researchers used health data from the Veterans Health Administration and Medicare databases for 158,122 of those veterans, covering January 1, 1997 to February 17, 2021. The study found 430 veterans from this data set had Parkinson’s disease, with Lejeune vets developing the condition about 70% more often.
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological condition that causes tremors and movement disorders. TCE is an industrial chemical solvent often used to degrease metal machine parts. According to a March 2023 article in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease authored by Samuel Goldman – also an author of the VA study – and Briana De Miranda, the chemical has been linked to instances of neurological disorders including Parkinson’s disease as far back as 1969.
Among the vets studied who eventually developed Parkinson’s, 279 had been stationed at Camp Lejeune and 151 at Camp Pendleton, according to the study. Additionally, the Camp Lejeune veterans had significantly higher rates of early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, including tremors, anxiety and erectile dysfunction.
Since 2017, the VA has treated Parkinson’s and seven other conditions as having “presumptive service connection” for vets who served at Camp Lejeune between 1953 and 1987 for at least 30 days
As a presumptive condition, vets applying for care and benefits need not prove a direct connection between their diagnosis and their service to qualify, but only that they were assigned to Lejeune during those years or were otherwise exposed to its drinking water.
In a statement Monday, the VA wrote that it “encourages all Veterans who served for at least 30 days total at Camp Lejeune between August 1, 1953, and December 31, 1987 – and their family members – to apply for the care and benefits they deserve at VA.gov/CampLejeune.”
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