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U.S. Marines seek families exposed to chemicals
Contaminated water linked to birth defects
CAMP LEJEUNE, North Carolina (CNN) -- The U.S. Marine Corps is seeking thousands of people who lived at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, between 1968 and 1985, when they could have been exposed to contaminated water suspected of causing birth defects and childhood cancers.
The Marines have turned to the national news media to publicize their search. At a Pentagon news conference Wednesday, Marine Corps spokesman Col. Michael Lehnert told reporters that some families who lived in base housing raised serious questions about their children's health.
Deborah Horney became pregnant twice while the military base's water was contaminated. She suffered one miscarriage before giving birth to another child who developed a large mass on his neck. The growth was surgically removed but never identified.
"We actually consider ourselves relatively lucky compared to some people who had children who were born severely deformed and may have lived a few days -- people who had children who died," said Horney, a Marine Corps. wife.
That was the case with another Camp Lejeune wife, Martha Vaughn. Her daughter was one month old when she died.
"When she was born she had a knot on her stomach and they told us she needed to have surgery," Vaughn recalled. "That her intestines were somehow tangled together, her large and small intestines."
Vaughn said doctors told her they had they had seen two other newborns with the very same, rare defect in the previous two months at Camp Lejeune.
What was in the water
Marine officials emphasize that all current drinking water at Camp Lejeune is regularly tested and is safe to drink.
The contaminated wells that once supplied houses on the sprawling military base have been closed for 15 years.
The water in those wells was found to contain excessive levels of two carcinogenic chemicals:
Tetrachlorethylene (PCE), used for dry cleaning and metal degreasing. Suspected of being dumped by a former dry cleaner.
Exposure to high concentrations of the chemical can cause dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, and unconsciousness.
Trichloroethylene (TCE), a colorless liquid used as solvent for cleaning metal parts, apparently dumped by the base motor pool. Drinking or breathing high levels of the chemical may cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma and possibly death.
University of Georgia environmental health professor Jeff Fisher said the concentration of those chemicals was ten times higher at the base than at other comparable toxic sites.
"At least a factor of ten, going from a hundred parts per billion contamination level for solvents, to a thousand," said Fisher.
Corps knew of problem since 1985
Marine Corps officials claim they and water officials weren't even monitoring wells for PCE and TCE until the early 1980s and didn't know any better.
"The important thing to understand is what we knew and when we knew it, and what type of guidelines were available to commanders at the time," said Lehnert. "We're confident that the commanders that were working around the base at that time acted responsibly."
Once they discovered the problem in 1985, the Marines told those service members living on base but made no effort to inform former residents until last year.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry published a report in 1998 identifying a potential link between the contaminated water and birth defects. That report was based on a sampling of Camp Lejeune families.
The agency last year began contacting parents of children either born or conceived at the base between 1968 and 1985 to survey their health histories.
Only about 6,500 of the estimated 16,500 families that may have been exposed to the contaminated water have been reached to date.
Study could be expanded
Even those parents whose children have not exhibited any health concerns are asked to answer a 35-question health survey conducted by telephone. To participate, the parents should call the National Opinion Research Center at 1-800-639-4270.
The data collected may be used in a follow-up scientific research study about the effects of the contaminated water may have on children when exposed to the chemicals before birth.
Questions also have been raised about whether the contaminated water could have affected not only unborn infants but adults and children.
"There's always that possibility," said Wendy Kaye, chief of epidemiology at ATSDR. "But the in-utero exposure is believed to be the most susceptible time period. And if we find a problem in that group, then we might expand it to other groups."
Former Marine Charles Horney, whose family drank the contaminated water, hopes the marines are telling the full truth:
"Well, I love the Corps, you know. I'll always be faithful to the Corps," said Horney. "But what's wrong is wrong. If something needs to be done, they need to make it right."
CNN Correspondent Brian Cabell and Reuters contributed to this report.
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