WASHINGTON — In the decades that poisonous chemicals tainted the drinking water at Camp Lejeune, N.C., hundreds of thousands of Marines filed through the base, but so far, only 200 veterans have asked the Department of Veterans Affairs to link their illnesses to the poisons.
Of those, only 20 have been told "yes."
A Veterans Affairs official told Congress on Thursday that despite the evidence of widespread contamination of drinking water at Camp Lejeune, the agency doesn't think that the science yet exists to link exposure to the toxic water to a host of cancers and other diseases suffered by former base residents.
"Establishing presumptive diseases at this point would be premature," said Thomas J. Pamperin, the associate deputy undersecretary for policy and program management at Veterans Affairs.
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Instead, the VA has awarded benefits on a case-by-case — and isolated — basis.
As the military, federal scientists, congressional officials and Veterans Affairs try to sort out how closely to link the toxins in the water with a variety of illnesses and cancers, Marines and their families continue to struggle for their health care.
"I have no idea if I will see my daughter graduate high school, go to college or get married," Pete Devereaux of Massachusetts, a male breast cancer patient who was told two years ago that he had only two or three years left to live, told the House Science and Technology Committee's oversight panel Thursday.
Devereaux, his voice breaking, said his daughter, who's 12, has been particularly affected by his illness.
Last month, Devereaux was granted a disability decision from the VA after being repeatedly turned down in the past year.
"The degree of contamination was extraordinary at Camp Lejeune," testified Richard Clapp, an epidemiologist and professor emeritus at Boston University. The amount of trichloroethylene (TCE) recorded in one sample in 1982, he noted, was 1,400 parts per billion — more than 280 times what would be allowed by today's standards.
"This is the largest (TCE) exposure in our country's history," said Clapp, who also serves on an advisory panel for federal scientists studying the issue. "Congress needs to act."
He said there's plenty of science — going back to the early 1980s — to show that TCE and other contaminants have impacts that can include a variety of cancers and, for newborns, birth defects.
No presumption yet exists, however.
Marines Corps Maj. Gen. Eugene G. Payne said the military relies on scientists to make a determination about whether the contamination can be connected to veterans' illnesses.
"We would love for the scientific community to tell us that there is one, if there is one," Payne said in an interview.
Meanwhile, federal scientists at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in Atlanta are continuing a water modeling study that aims to figure out how much of the contaminants residents might have been exposed to during their time at Camp Lejeune.
That would be used to inform a handful of epidemiology studies at the agency to offer further detail on the potential health impacts, said Chris Poitier, who became last month became the director of the agency, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
He, like Clapp, however, said the science showing impacts of the poisons already exists.
"It's not just these studies (at the agency) that should be used," Poitier said. "It's the broader scientific knowledge."
Still, Poitier said the agency doesn't have the role to decide whether any links between the toxic water and the diseases would amount to the kind of presumption the Department of Veterans Affairs could use to award health benefits.
"That's a societal question," Poitier said in an interview. In this case, he said, that means Congress.
Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., the chairman of the oversight panel, has introduced legislation that would establish an assumption that if service members were at Camp Lejeune from the mid-1950s through the mid-1980s, they will be presumed to have been exposed to the toxic water. The legislation also provides health care for veterans and family members with diseases that could be associated with the exposure.
About a million people are estimated to have been exposed to TCE, tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene and other chemicals until the wells were shut down in 1984 and 1985. It's unknown how many could be ill, but 163,000 people have registered with the Marine Corps for more information.
If Congress passes Miller's legislation, thousands of people could be eligible to get their health care through the VA — at a potential cost of millions of taxpayer dollars.
"It's clear you're pretty lawyered up," Miller told the government officials, pointing out that their testimony had been cleared by the Justice Department — and that there also is pending litigation regarding Camp Lejeune.
"There is a great deal of concern at (the Office of Management and Budget) and the Pentagon about the expense (of compensation)," Miller said.
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