Close this search box.

Lessons from the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Crisis (Guide)

Water is a precious resource. We need it to survive, and we use it every day in our homes, businesses, and daily lives. But what if our water isn’t safe?

What if the water we drink is contaminated? How can we tell? And how can we make sure that the water we drink is safe for everyone who uses it?

To answer these questions, we look back at Camp Lejeune, one of the biggest cases of military water contamination in history. Thousands  of Marines and their families lived at the base for years, and a massive water contamination scandal took place there between 1953 and 1987 when it was discovered that the drinking water at Camp Lejeune had been contaminated with toxic chemicals like tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene, benzene, vinyl chloride, and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

It resulted in huge health impacts to military personnel and their families, following which the Camp Lejeune water contamination lawsuit, a class-action lawsuit brought against the federal government, claimed decades long contamination of the drinking water at Camp Lejeune with toxic chemicals.

So, what happened exactly? And what can we learn from it?

Let’s take a look:

What Happened and How the Marines Were Aware of the Issues

The dramatic effects of this event are still unfolding, even after half a century. It’s believed that over 1 million people were affected by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, including:

  • Military personnel
  • Family members and staff who lived on or around the base
  • People who have visited the area for vacations and special events

The U.S. Marines have been aware of the issues with the contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune since at least 1985. They had begun testing it themselves after a worker filed a complaint to OSHA, stating that he’d been exposed to chemicals while handling waste from a nearby dry-cleaning business.

But while they knew something was wrong, they didn’t know exactly what kind of contamination existed or how extensive it was—they just knew there were problems with their water supply and that they needed to take action as soon as possible.

After further testing in 1991 revealed more information about how bad things really were at Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Site (CLWCS), some officials began advising residents not only against drinking their tap water but also against showering in it due to high levels of TCE—a chemical used in dry cleaning processes which can cause liver damage if exposed over long periods.

It wasn’t until 2012 that the Marine Corps finally admitted responsibility for contaminating residents’ water supplies by way of leaking fuel storage tanks; however, even then, there were no real repercussions because most people who lived around CLWCS had already moved away by this point.  

This video by Parker Waichman gives a timeline of events and the outcome of the lawsuits filed:


Unbearable Loss and Suffering

The water contamination at Camp Lejeune has left behind more than just a toxic lake. It’s left behind loss and suffering that can’t be measured in numbers or chemicals, but it must be addressed. The contamination is the result of decades-old negligence on behalf of those supposed to protect the country, and it resulted in so much more than just contaminated drinking water.

For some people who lived at Camp Lejeune during this time period, it meant losing loved ones; for others, losing homes; still, others lost their health or livelihoods; many people lost faith in their government; while others even lost faith in their military or country as well as God himself.

These are heavy burdens for anyone to carry around with them every day—not only because they’re painful reminders of what happened but also because they prevent us from moving forward into brighter days ahead (remembering pain keeps you stuck). So how do we move past something so tragic?

The answer is simple: healing through forgiveness—and forgiveness starts with ourselves first before we can forgive anyone else.

Children and Pregnant Women Were Most Affected by the Contaminated Water

As you may have heard, there was a toxic chemical in the Camp Lejeune water supply that caused people to get sick and even die. But what you might not know is that this contamination also affected pregnant women and their children by causing congenital disabilities such as cleft palates, fetal brain damage, and childhood cancers.

Moreover, many children died as a result of their mother being exposed to contaminated water during their pregnancy. It turns out that newborns are especially vulnerable to the effects of exposure because they’re still developing, which means if their mothers were exposed while pregnant, it could leave lasting damage.

Pregnant women also have an increased susceptibility to toxins due to hormones that are released during pregnancy that affect how certain organs work and whether or not they can eliminate certain chemicals from their bodies effectively.

Image of a cross shaped gravestone and a man's arm holding out a brown teddybear to place in front of it

Catastrophic Psychological Event

The effects of Camp Lejeune’s water contamination on the psychological health of those who were exposed to it can be wide-ranging, from everyday stress and anxiety to more serious mental health issues like PTSD and suicidal thoughts.

The potential for psychological harm is especially high for children whose parents served at Camp Lejeune. Children with mothers who drank contaminated water while pregnant are also at risk for developmental delays or learning disabilities. Additionally, they may experience behavioral problems such as aggression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The mental health problems caused by Camp Lejeune Water Contamination can be severe, including depression and anxiety. Some of the people who experienced this contamination were children; many of them developed cancer or other illnesses later in life. In addition to psychological distress, many people develop physical symptoms like skin rashes and sores from exposure to contaminated water.

Still Struggling to Get Benefits

The lawsuit filed in light of the terrible impacts of the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Crisis argues that the Marine Corps knew about the contamination but did nothing to inform soldiers and their families of the dangers. The chemicals in question include trichloroethylene (TCE), benzene, vinyl chloride, and perchloroethylene (PCE) – chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and other health problems.

Many affected individuals decided to support the Camp Lejeune Water Contamination lawsuit as the story of Camp Lejeune is one of environmental contamination, illness and death, military wrongdoing, and a community left to suffer the consequences of their government’s actions—and inaction.

This video by 11Alive highlights the suffering of just one man:


This is still an ongoing story today, as those affected by this contamination continue to experience after-effects long after they left that base.

While we’ve all been paying attention to the water contamination at Camp Lejeune, and while it is fair that we should be doing so, there is another part of this story that deserves our attention.

It’s easy to forget about the people who have been affected by the contamination and are now struggling with health issues—both physical and mental. While it may seem like these people have received a lot of help from the government since news broke about high levels of toxic chemicals in the water system at Camp Lejeune, but nothing could be further from reality.

The fact is that these families are still being denied disability benefits because they don’t meet certain criteria for disability status. In other words: these families are not getting enough support from our government agencies. 

4 Ways to Prevent Such Water Contamination Incidents 

1. Testing Water Quality

Testing water quality is essential for maintaining the good health of everyone. This includes testing for bacteria, viruses, and chemicals. If the water quality is bad, you should take steps to remove or treat it before using it for drinking or cooking.

You can test a sample of water using a spectrophotometer that uses light at different wavelengths to detect any contaminants in your sample. You can also use simple tests like taking a sample of water from one place and putting it into two jars: one with vinegar and one without (this will be used to test whether there are any pollutants in the air). 

Then wait several hours while they sit out in direct sunlight; if the jar containing vinegar has become cloudy, this indicates that there may be something wrong with your samples and you should take a fresh sample and have it tested professionally by a local lab. 

person in full PPE taking a surface water sample on the edge of a lake

2. Keep Hazardous Waste Away From Water Sources

When it comes to preventing water contamination, it’s important to keep hazardous waste away from water sources.

  • Don’t store hazardous waste near your water supply. For example, don’t put an oil tank next to a lake or stream where it could leak into the water supply if the tank is damaged or becomes punctured by an animal digging around in its contents.
  • Don’t dump hazardous waste into your water supply. If you have an on-site incinerator for disposing of wastes like asbestos insulation and old paint cans, make sure that these items are not going into the incinerator without being properly treated first (for example, with a solvent). You should also use caution when disposing of potentially contaminated items (pipelines) so that they don’t end up leaking into nearby waterways or wetlands. Your local environmental inspector can help you with this process if needed. 

3. Use a Real-Time Monitoring System

A real-time monitoring system is a great tool for detecting contamination in the water as soon as it enters your site. The system monitors the water quality in real-time and has the ability to detect any contamination that may have been introduced into your supply. This type of technology allows you to take action immediately by shutting off certain areas of your facility or shutting down entire systems if necessary.

Keep an eye on the local news about contamination issues. If there’s been a spill near where you live or work, contact your city council member or state representative and ask them what they’re doing about it. You might even want to contact local environmental groups like Sierra Club or Greenpeace and see what they recommend. You can also regularly test your own water using a Home Depot or Lowe’s kit. They’re inexpensive and easy to use.

Image of a mans hands holding up vials of water in a home test kit to the light to see the colours

4. Observe Caution

It’s important to know how to avoid water contamination issues in everyday life, whether you’re at home or out of town. If you see signs of contamination in your water supply, you should be extremely cautious. Don’t use tap water to brush your teeth or wash dishes unless it’s filtered first. Make sure you have a filter on your shower head and that it’s working properly. Only drink bottled water that has been stored properly and is free of any debris or smells. Also, wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before consuming them raw.

You should not use a metal container when heating up or storing food or beverages that contain water, such as soups, stews, pasta sauce, or any other liquid-based dish. The metal pot can react with the contaminants present in your food and cause serious health problems later down the road, including cancer. Use rubber gloves when cleaning up after pets so that the water doesn’t get into your mouth accidentally.

Summing Up

The effects of the Camp Lejeune water contamination are still reverberating today in the lives of those who lived on base at that time. There’s more we could say about what happened, but ultimately, it’s important to remember that this is a human story—one that spans decades and affects thousands.

Finally, the contamination of Camp Lejeune was more than just contamination—it was a tragedy. The families who suffered because of the incident deserve so much more than they have received. We can only hope that the VA benefits will become easier to receive in the future, allowing those affected by the incident to get what they need.

Frequently Asked Questions

When Was the Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune First Discovered?

The problem was first discovered in 1987. In that year, officials at Camp Lejeune began to suspect that there might be something wrong with their water supply after they noticed that the base hospital had reported an increase in miscarriages and congenital disabilities among families stationed at the base during that period. Read the full article to learn more.

What Kinds of Diseases were Caused by Water Contamination at Camp Lejeune?

Diseases linked to water contamination at Camp Lejeune include cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, thyroid disease, and respiratory diseases, such as asthma and emphysema. Other conditions have also been linked to exposure to the chemicals found in Camp Lejeune water, including liver cancer, high blood pressure, infertility in men, congenital disabilities, and brain tumors. Read the full article for more info on the diseases caused by water contamination.

How Long Did the Drinking Water at Camp Lejeune Remain Toxic?

The water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated from 1953 to 1987 when it became clear that the chemicals were causing cancer and other health problems. Read the full article for more info on the Camp Lejeune water contamination crisis.

It is believed that contamination occured when an industrial solvent named tetrachloroethylene, which entered a nearby aquifer at a point where it connected with the base's groundwater supply.

How Much Time Do I Have to File a VA Benefits Claim Related to Camp Lejeune Contamination Exposure?

How much time you have to file a Camp Lejeune contamination-related claim depends on whether you were diagnosed with one of the illnesses associated with exposure to the contaminated water. If you were diagnosed with one of these illnesses, there are two ways that your claim may be affected. 1) You have five years from the date of diagnosis when filing a disability claim related to Camp Lejeune contamination exposure; 2) If you have been recently diagnosed with any one of these diseases and submit your VA benefits application within two years after being told about it, it will be considered a new disability claim. 


Marine Corps Times: Investigations Continue into Deaths of Three Children at NC Marine Base Base Guide – Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune 

The Daily Beast: Senate Passes Bill Allowing Camp Lejeune Residents to Seek Reparations 

U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs: Camp Lejeune Water Contamination Health Issues

WECT News: Marines and Family Members Exposed to Contaminated Water at Camp Lejeune May Soon be Able to Sue Families Fight for Compensation for Exposure to Deadly Toxic Water at Camp Lejeune

Get cutting-edge Climate Solutions Delivered to Your Inbox

The climate tech essentials. Bite-sized monthly updates for busy changemakers.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This
Scroll to Top