While it is often casually thrown around that water is an invaluable resource, no one should take it for granted. For a reality check, our minds must always drift back to the darkest period in US history in terms of water contamination – the Camp Lejeune crisis of 1953 to 1987.
The somber period of nearly four decades involved veterans and their family members consuming contaminated water. Later, research conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that three water distribution tanks were laden with pollutants like benzene, trichloroethylene, and other toxic organic compounds.
However, the discovery was just the beginning of a lifelong war against the aftermath of such an event. Let’s understand Camp Lejeune’scrisis in detail and the lessons it teaches.
What Camp Lejeune’s Harrowing Tragedy Left Behind
According to the ASTDR, the water at Camp Lejeune was contaminated due to an off-base dry cleaning facility’s poor waste management practices. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as TCE, PCE, and benzene were released through the fumes of the cleaning agents used in the facility.
All of this waste landed straight into the groundwater, which also supplied three water distribution tanks at the camp. Since VOCs dissolve in water to some extent, they remain notoriously hidden but also waiting to cause havoc.
And what havoc they caused! Years of toxic water consumption led to thousands of unfortunate cases of:
- Liver, bladder, breast, and blood cancer
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Multiple myeloma
- Infertility issues
- Neurological defects
- Parkinson’s disease
After a thorough Federal investigation, President Barrack Obama provided medical assistance to the victims through the Janey Ensminger Act of 2012. However, there were no compensations made for the damages incurred at the time.
Exactly a decade later, President Joe Biden signed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act on August 9th, 2022. This Act gave all victims (direct or indirect) the right to file a Camp Lejeune toxic water lawsuit.
Through a filing, affected veterans and their families became eligible for Federal compensation. Attorneys at TorHoerman Law note that Camp Lejeune victims have received compensation that ranges between $10000 and $500,000, depending on the damages endured.
The Only Way to Prevent Future Tragedies
Even decades later, the wreckage of the Camp Lejeune water contamination crisis is fresh. Camp Lejeune residents are still trying to pick up their life’s pieces and move forward. What are some of the most important lessons this tragedy teaches us?
1. Hazardous Wastes Should be Kept Away from Water Sources
The first lesson to be learned is to never bring hazardous waste anywhere near water sources. This would include placing an oil tanker next to a reservoir or lake.
Also, no waste should be dumped into water sources. This is primarily how the ABC dry cleaning facility’s by-products contaminated the three tanks – those supplying water to Hadnot Point, Holcomb Boulevard, and Tarawa Terrace.
For wastes like asbestos, onsite incinerators are the best. As far as complex items like lead pipes are concerned, the local environment officer may be able to help.
2. Testing Water Quality Periodically Is a Must
The water contamination crisis at Camp Lejeune persisted unnoticed for decades because of no strict quality checks. While the supplying bodies must run regular checks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) clarifies that private well owners must run their own checks at least annually.
Homeowners can also contribute by investing in a device called the spectrophotometer. This device uses wavelengths of light to detect any contaminants in a water sample. Local authorities can then be notified of any suspicious or harmful contaminants.
3. A Real-Time Monitoring System Is Imperative
The best way to combat any harmful pollutants is to seize them at the site of entry. Thankfully, today this is possible through a real-time monitoring system.
The system can closely monitor the water quality, and the authorities are notified when it detects fresh contaminants in a specific area. The facility in question may be shut down till the issue is resolved.
Such a practice will prevent the entire system from being contaminated. It becomes important in light of the fact that the third water distribution tank at Lejeune was contaminated only because its system received water from the already contaminated first tank during a week of repairs.
4. Increased Awareness of Water Contamination
It’s a scientific fact that pure water is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. This means there will be several physical signs of water contamination. The water could taste odd, too salty, too sweet, metallic, etc.
In some cases, the water appears too cloudy, milky, and sedimentary, among others. There may also be a sharp, unpleasant smell. Were residents of Camp Lejeune unable to detect such changes? Probably.
Even Volatile Organic Compounds impart a citrusy or herby taste to the water. Greater education and public awareness can at least bring the issue to light sooner. For instance, governments can create joint drives with the masses to educate the unaware. Sessions can be held to help them distinguish between pure and toxic water.
To target younger demographics, social media posts should help. However, schools and universities can join hands to conduct sessions on air and water contamination.
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Camp Lejeune’s water contamination tragedy was unlike any other the US has ever seen. Though the veterans and their families are being compensated based on injuries, the only way to avenge their suffering is to ensure such an incident never occurs.
A few effective ways to do that are to never grow slack on periodic water testing and maintain a strong and transparent communication channel between the public and government authorities. It is high time that authorities protected the interests of whistleblowers and encouraged them to come forward.