The possible link between breast cancer and the environmental contamination at Camp Lejeune

By Shaniqua Williams

Posted on July 29th, 2020

New study results suggested possible associations between exposure to perchloroethylene, dichloroethene, and vinyl chloride at Camp Lejeune and breast cancer. The results of this study add to the scientific literature on the health effects of exposure to these chemicals.

Between 1952 and 1987, over one million military personnel and their family members stationed at the U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, were potentially exposed to industrial chemicals. Service members living on the base at the time, along with their families, began to develop health problems considered presumptive service-connected.

Overview of Camp Lejeune environmental contamination

Founded in 1941, U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune is a massive military training facility that wraps around the New River tidal estuary and borders the Atlantic Ocean. In the early 1980s, the wells that supplied two areas of housing at Camp Lejeune were found to be contaminated with vinyl chloride - a deadly toxic chemical, benzene - a carcinogenic gasoline additive, and other industrial chemicals, primarily chlorinated solvents such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and perchloroethylene (PCE). Later studies showed that there were upwards of 70 other health-hazardous chemicals that have been identified as contaminants at Lejeune.

Organic chemicals that cause mammary tumors in animals also influence the development of breast cancer

Perchloroethylene (PCE) - the primary contaminant found in the wells serving the Tarawa Terrace system, is a manufactured chemical used mostly as a cleaning agent.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified PCE as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans" based on sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in animals and suggestive evidence in humans, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), a division of the World Health Organization (WHO) has also concluded that PCE is "probably carcinogenic to humans" based on similar evidence. PCE is toxic to humans even at very low concentrations. Consistent with experimental evidence, a few key studies suggested a correlation between breast cancer and trichloroethylene. Some studies suggest that early-life exposure to some chemicals, including PCE - in the womb, during puberty, and during pregnancy - may influence breast cancer risk later in life.

The EPA has established a maximum contaminant level for PCE of 5 parts per billion. At this low amount, practically PCE cannot be perceived by smell or taste. For example, people may smell PCE in the air at concentrations above 1 ppm (parts per million). Researchers believe the time in a person's life in which they are exposed to environmental chemicals may influence breast cancer risk.

The toxic exposure at Camp Lejeune and the development of male breast cancer may be connected, according to a new study

"We observed an accelerated onset of male breast cancer among those stationed at Camp Lejeune compared to other bases", the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in a study published in the journal Environmental Health, adding that seven other cases involving male breast cancer were found.

The unusual incidence of male breast cancer at the base was first reported in 2009. Scientists looked at 444 men born before 1969 who were in the Marines and have been treated for certain cancers at the VA health care facilities. They found that 30 of them stationed at Camp Lejeune during the worst contamination case in U.S. history were later diagnosed with male breast cancer. Although male breast cancer is extremely rare - with an incidence of about 1 in every 100,000 men, ATSDR scientists said the numbers suggested a possible association between male breast cancer and cumulative exposure to multiple contaminants found at Camp Lejeune.

Disability benefits for veterans who developed breast cancer as a result of past toxic exposure at Camp Lejeune

If you have a current diagnosis of breast cancer and your military records are showing that you served at Camp Lejeune for at least 30 days, you may be able to get disability benefits.

To make a successful claim, you must meet these eligibility requirements:

  • you served on duty at Camp Lejeune for 30 days or more between August 1953 and December 1987
  • you have a diagnosis that is presumed to be connected to the environmental contamination at Camp Lejeune
  • you were the spouse or dependent of the veteran during the same period and you lived on the base for 30 days or more between the same dates

If family members have out-of-pocket costs due to conditions related to their stay at Camp Lejeune, they may be eligible for reimbursement from the VA. Healthcare reimbursements are also available for family members who lived on the base with their sponsors or children who were born of parents who lived on the base.