Camp Lejeune veterans have a 68% higher risk of multiple myeloma than veterans stationed at other military bases
The immune system is comprised of multiple cell types working together to fight infections. Healthy plasma cells reside in the bone marrow and are a very important part of the immune system.
Lymphocytes, also known as lymph cells, are among the main kinds of white blood cells within the immune system and include T cells and B cells.
When B cells respond to infection, they mature and turn into plasma cells, producing antibodies that help your body attack and kill germs. Generally, when plasma cells become malignant and grow out of control, multiple myeloma is diagnosed. According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer, in addition to causing leukemia and lymphoma, benzene exposure can also lead to the development of multiple myeloma. The first cases of acute myelogenous leukemia were reported among workers exposed to high concentrations of benzene in shoe manufacturing and rotogravure plants during the last century. Because there were reports of another hematologic malignancy, multiple myeloma, in people exposed to benzene, researchers began conducting studies to determine whether benzene might also be involved in the causation of this cancer. Since the benzene metabolites affect hematopoietic stem cells, researchers concluded that it was associated with all lymphohematic cancers, including multiple myeloma.
The major effects of long-term benzene exposure on the blood and blood-forming tissues include the following:
- depletion of bone marrow cells
- bone demineralization
- alterations of red cell function
- a low white blood cell count
Benzene was one of the solvents present in the environment of Camp Lejeune during the last century. One of the reasons that not a lot of medical studies focus on the causal relation between benzene exposure and multiple myeloma is that this cancer is often grouped with other lymphopoietic cancers in the analysis, such as leukemia and lymphoma. A study from the journal Regulatory Toxicology and Pharmacology monitored the health of 250,000 petroleum workers, who were regularly exposed to benzene over a period of 55 years, and 205 of these employees eventually developed multiple myeloma.
In the 1970s, the Environmental Protection Agency cited Camp Lejeune as "a major polluter", particularly for dumping oil, industrial waste, potentially radioactive materials, and other toxic substances into the storm drain. A major source of contamination was a nearby dry-cleaning company, ABC One-Hour Cleaners, that dumped into drains sewage waste laden with dangerous solvents, including benzene, for years.
The practices of ABC One-Hour Cleaners continued until the end of the 1980s when the military instituted regulations for properly disposing of hazardous materials. By then, however, over 1.1 million gallons of benzene-containing fuel stored in leaking underground storage tanks had seeped into the soil, and adverse health consequences that came from consuming toxic water at Camp Lejeune started to appear among veterans. These are the most common symptoms of multiple myeloma:
- bone pain, especially in the spine and chest
- nausea and vomiting
- brain fog and confusion
- recurring infections
- loss of appetite
- unintentional weight loss
- excessive thirst
- weakness or numbness in your legs
Finally, exposure to trichloroethylene, another solvent present in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, was also found to be a risk factor for multiple myeloma by a study from the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Increasing duration and cumulative exposure to the solvent were associated with a significantly high risk of multiple myeloma, according to the researchers. Moreover, the most consistent results were observed for trichloroethylene, with multiple myeloma risk increasing with greater exposure when low-confidence exposure assignments were considered unexposed.