ATSDR at Work: Camp Lejeune, NC, Part 1Posted on by
This is the First in a Series of Three Posts
What’s in the Water?
You’re out working in your yard on a steamy summer day when you realize you need a break. You run inside to pour yourself a tall glass of ice water. But do you stop to test it before you drink it? Probably not. Most of us trust that our local systems provide us with safe water and eagerly guzzle it down.
Now, how would you feel if you found out that the same water you have been drinking, cooking with, and bathing in has been contaminated with harmful chemicals for years?
That is what happened to Marines and their families who lived at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, before 1987.
Contaminated Drinking Water at Camp Lejeune
During 1980-1982, the Marine Corps tested drinking water at the eight plants that provided water to family housing units and barracks at the base. Tests showed that drinking water from two treatment plants contained chemicals (called volatile organic compounds or “VOCs”).
The Tarawa Terrace treatment plant served family housing. It was contaminated with high levels of tetrachloroethylene (PCE). PCE is a solvent used in dry cleaning that can cause cancer. Investigators traced the PCE in Tarawa Terrace wells to improper disposal practices at a dry cleaner located just off base.
The Hadnot Point treatment plant served the main area of the base including barracks, a hospital, and eateries. It was contaminated with high levels of trichloroethylene (TCE). Tests also found PCE, vinyl chloride and benzene. TCE is a solvent used to clean and degrease machinery; benzene is found in gasoline, and vinyl chloride occurs as TCE and PCE degrade over time in groundwater. TCE, PCE, vinyl chloride and benzene can cause cancer. These chemicals came from several sources on base: leaking underground storage tanks, industrial area spills, and waste disposal sites.
When the Marine Corps sampled the water supply wells for these systems two years later, they still contained VOCs. The base shut down the most contaminated wells by February 1985. Of course, this was disturbing news for the people who had been drinking this water. But what about those who had lived at Camp Lejeune from the 1940s through the mid-1980s? Had their water been contaminated too?
Computer Modeling of Past Drinking Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune
In 1989, the Base and the nearby ABC Cleaners were listed as EPA “Superfund” sites. As a result, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) began evaluating the drinking water exposures and health effects at Camp Lejeune.
Before ATSDR scientists could find out if people had been affected by the drinking water, they had to figure out the amounts of chemicals that had been in the water and for how long. Unfortunately, no information was available on the amounts of chemicals in the Base’s water before 1980.
So scientists at ATSDR used water modeling methods to find out where and when areas at Camp Lejeune got contaminated drinking water. The water modeling provided monthly estimates of the levels of these chemicals at the Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point water systems since the 1940s when the base opened.
Water modeling is a scientific method that combines mathematics, water science, technology, and engineering to map the chemicals as they moved from where they entered the groundwater, to the water supply wells, and eventually to residences and other areas on base that used the water.
ATSDR published its reports of drinking water contamination of the Tarawa Terrace water system during 2007-2009. ATSDR found that Marines and their families served by the Tarawa Terrace system from November 1957 through February 1987 received drinking water contaminated with PCE at levels higher than the current U.S. standard.
ATSDR published the reports of water modeling of the Hadnot Point water system during 2010-2013. ATSDR found that Marines and their families served by the Hadnot Point system from August 1953 through January 1985 received drinking water contaminated with one or more VOCs at levels higher than current U.S. standards.
The Big Question: Did Contaminated Water Cause Health Problems?
While some ATSDR scientists were carrying out the water modeling, others were working on studies to find out about the health of Camp Lejeune residents. Read the next post in this series to find out the results of these studies.