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Camp Lejeune residents blame rare cancer cluster on the water

For three decades, dry-cleaning chemicals and industrial solvents laced the water used by local Marines and their families. Mike Partain and at least 19 others developed male breast cancer.

August 26, 2009|David Zucchino

TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — One night in April 2007, as Mike Partain hugged his wife before going to bed, she felt a small lump above his right nipple. A mammogram -- a "man-o-gram," he called it -- led to a diagnosis of male breast cancer. Six days later, the 41-year-old insurance adjuster had a mastectomy.

Partain had no idea men could get breast cancer. But he thinks he knows what caused his: contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he was born.

Over the last two years, Partain has compiled a list of 19 others diagnosed with male breast cancer who once lived on the base.

For three decades -- from the 1950s to the mid-1980s -- the water supply used by hundreds of thousands of Marines and their families was laced with chemicals from an off-base dry-cleaning company and industrial solvents used to clean military equipment.

A 1974 base order required safe disposal of solvents and warned that improper handling could cause drinking water contamination. Yet solvents were dumped or buried near base wells for years.

"The Marine Corps knowingly poisoned their own people," Partain recently said in his living room, surrounded by stacks of military documents and water analysis reports. "They were told about the water, and they did nothing. Nothing. And then they lied about it."

Partain, whose father and grandfather were Marine officers, is tall and burly, with a shaved head and black goatee. His face reddens and his voice cracks when he discusses the toxic water. He maintains a website -- The Few, the Proud, the Forgotten -- where he posts material documenting the contamination and the stories of those who say it made them ill.

Military officials acknowledge that they were told as early as 1981 that potentially dangerous "volatile organic compounds" had been detected in the drinking water. However, the Corps, which has set up its own website (https://clnr.hqi.usmc.mil/clwater/) to deal with the issue, said that the two primary chemicals involved were not then subject to regulation.

It took time, officials said, to resolve questions about the source of the toxins and the validity of testing, which found different levels at different times. "Currently it is still not known whether or not the substances detected . . . were at harmful levels," Marine Capt. Brian Block wrote in an e-mail response to questions.

Tests confirming contamination in the wells were not completed until 1984, the military said, at which point the Corps began shutting down them down. The Marine Corps, Block added, disposed of solvents "in accordance with generally accepted industry practices at the time."

In men, breast cancer is rare. About 1,900 cases are expected to be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, compared with 192,000 cases in women, the American Cancer Society says.

Establishing a link between chemical exposure and a specific cancer cluster is difficult. But Partain and the others from Camp Lejeune say their illnesses are more than mere coincidence.

"God is the only one who really knows," said Jim Fontella, 63, who served at Camp Lejeune in 1966 and 1967. He was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years ago. "But it seems pretty strange."

Partain said there was no history of breast cancer in his family, and that a test for a gene linked to the disease was negative. Only two of the other 19 survivors -- 18 former Marines and the son of a Marine -- have family histories of female breast cancer, Partain said.

The website lists 484 people who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune and say they have been diagnosed with cancer or other illnesses. More than 1,600 former base residents have filed claims against the federal government, seeking $34 billion total in damages.

The military, Partain contends, knew details of the contamination earlier than it has admitted.

A 1980 report by a scientist working for the Army who tested base tap water warned officials that the "water is highly contaminated," Partain said. A 1981 follow-up report said that more tests had shown the water to be tainted "with other chlorinated hydrocarbons (solvents)!"

In 1982, a chemist with a private lab hired by the Corps provided the base commander with a report showing "contamination by trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene" in well fields supplying two Camp Lejeune water systems. "We called the situation to the attention of Camp Lejeune personnel," the chemist wrote, adding that his findings had important public health implications.

Trichloroethylene (TCE) is a colorless solvent often used to clean grease from machinery. Tetrachloroethylene (PCE) is commonly used in dry cleaning. Both chemicals are now "reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens," according to the Health and Human Services Department's National Toxicology Program. But in 1982 they were not subject to regulation.

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