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Mar-06-2009 12:09printcomments

Veterans Exposed to Carcinogens

Beyond Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, the government isn't required to notify veterans of their possible exposure to contaminants and their health effects.

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(SOMERDALE, N.J.) - Veterans for Change (VFC) supports legislation to expand VA presumptive disability coverage for disabled veterans exposed to toxic chemicals.

Government reports show that many military bases have elevated levels of trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE). Both chemicals are excellent degreasers. PCE is also used as a dry cleaning solvent. Both TCE and PCE are known carcinogens and linked to other serious illnesses.

An unknown number of veterans and others (dependents and civilian workers) were exposed to TCE/PCE on military bases, became seriously ill and no way “to connect the dots” to military service.

Except for Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, the Department of Defense is not required to notify veterans or others of their possible exposure to contaminants and their health effects. Thanks to the efforts of former Senator Elizabeth Dole (R, NC), the Navy and the Marine Corps have an on-going effort to notify individuals who lived or worked at Lejeune between 1957 and 1987 of potential exposure to TCE/PCE contaminated drinking water.

The Veterans for Change (VFC), a small but proactive group, supports legislation to include veterans exposed to TCE/PCE in the military and seriously ill from diseases linked to exposure to these chemicals to VA presumptive disability for disability compensation.

The VFC was founded in 2006 by Jim Davis, son of retired Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant (MGySgt) Lesley Davis who died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) often referred to as "Lou Gehrig's Disease," from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. Davis told Salem-News in 2008, the VFC supported a successful national effort to include ALS under the VA Presumptive Disability umbrella.

Davis, President of the VFC, also said that the VFC prepared a draft TCE/PCE Reduction bill modeled after a previous bill (2007 TCE Reduction Act), which did not make it out of committee for a Congressional vote. Davis said he met with California Congressional staffers, and is now circulating a petition for support among veterans and others. Copies of the petition can be obtained from the VFC by sending an email to Jim Davis at

If the VFC legislation is signed into law with the TCE/PCE presumptive disability provision, veterans with illnesses linked to TCE/PCE exposure and stationed on military bases where there’s evidence of exposure to these contaminants would be eligible for VA compensation disability payments and medical care from the VA. This is not like winning the lottery, but for many disabled veterans, this would definitely help pay the bills.

A 2003 Air Force Pentagon report estimated that there were 1,400 TCE-contaminated military sites.

In addition to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, The Marine Corps Times reported 22 military bases with TCE contaminated water in June 2007:

Air Force Plant #4 (General Dynamics) — Fort Worth, Texas
Andersen Air Force Base — Yigo, Guam
Marine Corps Logistics Base Barstow — Barstow, Calif.
Cornhusker Army Ammunition Plant — Hall County, Neb.
Fairchild Air Force Base (4 waste areas) — Spokane, Wash.
Lake City Army Ammunition Plant — Independence, Mo.
March Air Force Base — Riverside, Calif.
Mather Air Force Base — Mather, Calif.
McChord Air Force Base — Tacoma, Wash.
McClellan Air Force Base — McClellan AFB, Calif.
Middletown Air Field — Middletown, Pa.
Naval Air Development Center — Warminster Township, Pa.
Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant — Bedford, Mass.
Nebraska Ordnance Plant — Mead, Neb.
Norton Air Force Base — San Bernardino, Calif.
Old Roosevelt Field — Garden City, N.Y.
Otis Air National Guard Base/Camp Edward – Falmouth, Mass.
Picatinny Arsenal (U.S. Army) — Rockaway Township, N.J.
Pease Air Force Base — Portsmouth/ Newington, N.H.
Whiting Field Naval Air Station — Milton, Fla.
Wurtsmith Air Force Base — Oscoda, Mich.
New Brighton/ Arden Hills (Army) — New Brighton, Minn.

The Marine Corps Times news story provides internet links to detailed ATSDR information on these bases. (See: (See:

Missing Records and Well Screens

Even if the risk of exposure to TCE/PCE was not reported by ATSDR, veterans may have been exposed to these chemicals. For example, ATSDR told former MCAS El Toro veterans on January 2, 2009, that: “It is unfortunate that we can not conclusively determine whether the on-base wells were used to support the base’s water needs after 1951.”

However, the Navy was unable to determine the dates El Toro’s base wells were abandoned and other missing records such as the original well construction drawings showing location of well screen intervals were missing. ATSDR did note that “the wells located at El Toro were not considered viable water supply resources in 1969.” ATSDR based this conclusion of a 1969 municipal water services contract with the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD), requiring IRWD to use the wells at the nearby Santa Ana Air Facility to supply water to El Toro if for some reason municipal water was not available for El Toro.

At El Toro, the Navy and EPA estimated that the source area of the TCE plume spreading into Orange County had an estimated 8,000 pounds of TCE in the soil and groundwater. The city of Irvine’s consultant estimated the amount closer to 700,000 pounds.

Navy Disputes Higher Amount

Both the Navy and EPA indicate that there's no risk of exposure from the base’s water wells, despite the fact that the toxic plume cut a path right through six of the eight wells and the location of well screen intervals (the first point that water and contaminants enter a well) were unknown except for one well.

A Navy inspection of one well in 1998 found 50 feet of the screen interval in the contaminated aquifer. The remaining base wells were sealed without any attempt to locate the well screen intervals. The base laundry and dry cleaning facility just happened to be located near the base wells. PCE was used in this facility as a dry cleaning solvent for decades.

An argument could be made that the Navy had the opportunity to inspect all the base wells at El Toro prior to sealing them. After the first well was inspected (Well #4), the Navy chose not to inspect the remaining wells, leaving the issue in doubt. The Navy’s original well construction drawings would show the location of all well screen intervals, but all the drawings are missing. Under these circumstances, it appears reasonable to conclude that prior to 1970 when the IRWD contract was operational, El Toro’s base wells were at some risk for contamination from TCE/PCE. An El Toro veteran stationed on the base prior to 1970 with cancer or another serious illness linked to TCE/PCE exposure should be not denied disability compensation by the VA for the Navy’s poor record keeping and failure to inspect all wells before destroying them (1998 to 2006). Even though this sounds reasonable, don’t bet on the VA using the same logic.

According to Jim Davis, there’s a better way for veterans who are seriously ill from TCE/PCE exposure. VA disability claims for veterans who have diseases linked with exposure to these chemicals can be resolved by given them "presumptive disability" entitlement.

The VA’s Presumptive Disability entitlement eliminates the need for an expensive medical nexus statement. How does "presumptive entitlement" work? If one of the medical conditions linked to TCE/PCE exposure is diagnosed in a veteran and the veteran served in a location contaminated with TCE/PCE, the VA presumes that the circumstances of his/her service caused the condition, and disability compensation could be awarded.

The VA has four groups of veterans under the Presumptive Disability category. These include former POWs, Vietnam veterans (exposed to Agent Orange); atomic veterans (exposed to ionizing radiation); and Gulf War veterans. There’s medical support of the heath affects of TCE/PCE exposure from both the Agency for Toxic Substances Abuse (ATSDR) and the National Academy of Sciences.

The Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR), a Federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Resources, reported in Congressional testimony on TCE/PCE contamination of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in June 2007.

Dr. Thomas Sinks, Deputy Director, ATSDR, stated that: “Occupational exposure to TCE may cause nervous system effects, kidney, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and possibly death. Occupational exposure to TCE also has been associated with adult cancers such as kidney cancer, liver and biliary cancer, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. TCE in drinking water has been associated with childhood leukemia in two studies and with specific birth defects such as neural tube defects and oral clefts in one study.”

Dr. Sinks noted that: “PCE is a manufactured chemical used for dry cleaning and metal degreasing. Occupational exposure to PCE can cause dizziness, headaches, sleepiness, confusion, nausea, difficulty in speaking and walking, unconsciousness, Exposure to PCE-contaminated drinking water has been linked with adult cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, bladder cancer, and breast cancer. Inhalation and ingestion are important routes of exposure for both TCE and PCE. Both chemicals are listed in the 11th Report on Carcinogens from the National Toxicology Program as reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established Maximum Contaminant Levels for drinking water of 5 parts per billion (ppb) for PCE in 1991 and for TCE in 1987.” (See:

Davis told the Salem-News that veterans who are sick with cancer can't work, and many with limited assets do not have the means to pay for highly skilled medical professionals. Failing to provide the nexus statement from an expert will cause the disability claim to be denied. Sadly, that happens more often than not. There's a better way to repay those who served our country.

Bob O’Dowd is a former U.S. Marine with thirty years of experience on the east coast as an auditor, accountant, and financial manager with the Federal government. Half of that time was spent with the Defense Logistics Agency in Philadelphia. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, served in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. A graduate of Temple University, Bob has been married to Grace for 31 years. He is the father of two adult children and the grandfather of two boys. Bob has a blog site on former MCAS El Toro at This subject is where Bob intersected with Bob served in the exact same Marine Aviation Squadron that Salem-News founder Tim King served in, twenty years earlier. With their combined on-site knowledge and research ability, Bob and Tim and a handful of other ex-Marines, have put the contamination of MCAS El Toro on the map. The base is highly contaminated with TCE, trichloroethelyne

  • . You can email Bob O’Dowd, Environmental and Military Reporter, at this address:

    Comments Leave a comment on this story.

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    Matt Neumann September 20, 2018 11:49 am (Pacific time)

    I was on Air Alert for 4 months during the "Iranian Crisis". We were told to Hydrate heavily because of being from a cold climate and the possibility of having to go fight in a arid climate. Now many years later , none of my children can carry a fetus to full term . I have D>J>D> degenerative Joint desease. I've been told it's not SERVICE connected . What do I do ? Where do I go ?

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