There have been at least six major wars and nine smaller U.S. invasions since the drinking water became contaminated at Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville. Yet the cancer-causing contaminants are not limited to the military base. Benzene, which comes from petroleum and chemical industries; TCE, known as trichloroethylene, a metal degreaser; and PCE, short for perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning agent, have all been found at various concentrations in private drinking water wells throughout the state.
From 2000-2010, some drinking water wells in at least half the counties in North Carolina contain low levels of benzene, according to the UNC Gillings School of Public Health. However, there is no federal safe level of benzene in drinking water, only a the EPA’s “enforceable regulation” of 5 parts per billion. (States can enforce more stringent standards; North Carolina’s is the same as the EPA’s.) And there are wells in Edgecombe County that have tested twice that federal safe drinking water standard.
According to the Environmental Working Group, since 2004, seven water utilities in North Carolina reported detecting benzene in tap water: Monticello Estates in Greensboro, the town of Columbus, Middlesex Water System, Wakefield in Raleigh, Camelot Mobile Home Park in Asheville, Mountain Spring Water System in Linville, and Iredell Water Corporation in Statesville.
TCE and PCE, which are linked to cancer in humans, have also been detected in private well water in half the counties in the state, according to the UNC Gillings School. (The other half of the counties had not been tested in 2010.) Some wells in Randolph and Stanly counties tested above the federal safe drinking water level of 5 parts per billion.
TCE is also the culprit in the contamination of several wells in the Stony Hill Road subdivision in Wake Forest. Discovered in 2005, the TCE was also detected in soil and groundwater. The affected wells have been closed and those homes are now serviced by the private water company Aqua NC.
The long-standing contamination problems at Camp Lejeune were in the news again this week when the VA approved a rule to expand part of the Camp Lejeune Act to include more soldiers who might have been sickened by the water. Congress passed the act in 2012. It stated that that affected soldiers had to live for at least 30 days — consecutive or nonconsecutive — on base any time from Jan. 1, 1957, to Dec. 31, 1987. (An amendment backdated that period to Aug. 1, 1953.) It also listed several disorders connected to the contamination that allowed eligible soldiers to receive health care benefits.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has listed eight diseases that could have been caused by chronic exposure to the contaminated water on base: kidney cancer, liver cancer, bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, adult leukemia, multiple myeloma, aplastic anemia and other bone marrow disorders, and Parkinson’s disease.
The new rule differs from the Camp Lejeune Act in that it establishes a connection between the diseases and the time of service, which entitles veterans to disability compensation and other benefits. The Camp Lejeune Act provided only for health care treatment for illnesses related to the contamination.
The new rule also includes former reservists and National Guard members who lived at Camp Lejeune. Like regular active-duty military who were sickened by the water, these soldiers are also entitled to VA benefits in connection with the contamination.
The contamination was initially discovered in the early 1980s. That’s when in response to new Environmental Protection Agency standards, the Marine Corps monitored its water quality for volatile organic compounds. In 1982, the Marine Corps discovered elevated levels of the benzene, TCE and PCE in two of the eight on-base drinking water systems.