A Detailed Look at the Toxic Chemicals in Camp Lejeune’s Water

Camp Lejeune’s water has been described as a toxic stew of chemicals known to cause significant health issues from cancer to cardiac birth defects. The contaminated water on the base served locations where people lived, trained, worked, and attended school. Countless military members, civilians, and their families were exposed to a list of dangerous volatile chemicals while at Camp Lejeune, but it would be decades before they learned the truth about this health crisis.

Water is fundamental to life, but for many Camp Lejeune veterans like Jim, it also contributed to their deaths. Jim was stationed at Camp Lejeune for the duration of his enlistment. After service, he moved off base and continued with his life, never suspecting his health was in jeopardy. An unsolicited questionnaire from the Government was his first clue that something was amiss. Though Jim never responded, it remained in the back of his mind until his diagnosis of a relatively rare and terminal bile duct cancer. His surgeon mentioned this illness was typical of countries with bad water, and Jim immediately connected his diagnosis to his exposure to Camp Lejeune’s toxic water.


The Chemicals Detected in Camp Lejeune’s Water

Sampling records and water modeling by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) show concentration levels of the chemicals well exceeded the safety limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Government knew the dangers of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and that the sampling showed evidence the water at Camp Lejeune was unsafe.

The list of chemicals found in Camp Lejeune water samples included four main VOCs known to be harmful contaminants:

  • Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)
  • Trichloroethylene (TCE)
  • Vinyl Chloride
  • Benzene

Instead of warning anyone of the health risks of the contaminated water, the Government remained mute. Even with rows of headstones at Camp Lejeune’s baby heaven and an alarming number of people falling ill, the Government continued to conceal information regarding the toxic water on base. It would be years before anything was done, and many survivors still haven’t received the acknowledgment they deserve.

Tetrachloroethylene (PCE)

PCE is a chemical solvent used for dry cleaning and degreasing metal parts. This substance degrades over time into other compounds, including TCE and vinyl chloride. The current maximum contaminant level for PCE is 5 parts per billion (ppb), and during the period of toxic water at Camp Lejeune, this compound was detected at rates as high as 215 ppb. Ingestion and inhalation are common exposure pathways for PCE, so people were subjected to these compounds daily while bathing, cooking, and drinking water.

A person’s mood, memory, reaction time, and attention span can be altered by PCE exposure. Like other contaminants detected, PCE has been associated with higher cancer incidence rates. Research continues to find that this human carcinogen is likely to cause bladder cancer, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, among other debilitating diseases.

Trichloroethylene (TCE)

Military operations on the base used TCE solvents for various industrial tasks and mechanical projects. Improper disposal and leaking storage tanks of TCE at Camp Lejeune contributed to the water’s contamination. Many people recall the odor of the water on the base, which is a characteristic of VOCs like this. The maximum level of TCE detected in the water at Camp Lejeune was 1,400 ppb—280 times the EPA’s current exposure limit of 5 ppb.

According to the ATSDR, there is sufficient evidence that trichloroethylene causes kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and cardiac defects. A causal relationship has also been established between TCE exposure and Camp Lejeune residents’ leukemia, liver cancer, multiple myeloma, end-stage renal disease, Parkinson’s disease, and scleroderma.

Vinyl Chloride

Though TCE and PCE were the primary contaminants in Camp Lejeune’s water, other chemicals in this toxic stew, including vinyl chloride, compounded the resulting diseases and negative effects. This odorless gas is a common byproduct of TCE in contaminated groundwater. Monthly median concentrations of vinyl chloride at Camp Lejeune were measured at 22 ppb, exceeding the EPA limit of 2 ppb.

The EPA has classified vinyl chloride as a Group A human carcinogen. Exposure to this VOC also affects the central nervous system and causes liver damage and scleroderma-like skin changes.


Benzene is a colorless, slightly sweet-smelling liquid that contaminated Camp Lejeune’s water. Sampling detected benzene at levels as high as 2,500 ppb, well above the EPA’s maximum of 5 ppb. Long-term benzene exposure at Camp Lejeune is tied to negative effects related to blood diseases, including anemia, leukemias, and lymphomas. The ATSDR reports at least one study linking benzene exposure to miscarriages, which were a common occurrence at Camp Lejeune.

Jim never thought he’d be a part of a lawsuit regarding Camp Lejeune’s toxic water chemicals, but when litigation seemed to be the only way to hold anyone accountable, he said, “I’m all for it … I want everybody who got hurt to get help.” Jim was among the first to file a claim after the Camp Lejeune Justice Act was passed. Though he didn’t survive to see this lawsuit through, the Bell Legal Group Lejeune Attorney Team®  continues his fight for acknowledgment and recognition.