Gavin Smith

Gavin Smith, founder of Civilian Exposure

By Sandra Basu

WASHINGTON — The VA is beginning the process of amending its regulations to establish presumptive-disability status for veterans who have certain diseases linked to contaminated drinking water at Camp Lejeune.

By establishing presumptive status, it is presumed that the disease was caused by service, making it easier for veterans to obtain disability benefits.

In a recent announcement, the VA said it is reviewing potential presumptive service connection for kidney cancer, angiosarcoma of the liver and acute myelogenous leukemia, which it said “are known to be related to long-term exposure to the chemicals that were in the water at Lejeune from the 1950s through 1987.”

“The chemicals are benzene, vinyl chloride, trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene, which are known as volatile organic compounds, used in industrial solvents and components of fuels,” the agency explained. (For more on Camp Lejeune and cancer, see the Oncology Focus.)

Working with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and potentially the National Academy of Sciences “to evaluate the body of scientific knowledge and research related to exposure to these chemicals and the subsequent development of other diseases,” adding, “VA will carefully consider all public comments received when determining the final scope of any presumptions,” the VA explained.

A study from ATSDR researchers, published last month, linked the contaminated water to higher rates of early onset male breast cancer. Previous studies from the same group had found associations between the chemicals at the North Carolina base and a range of cancers.

Lawmakers applauded the announcement.

“The evidence has been accumulating for years now — many of those who lived or worked at Camp Lejeune in years past developed certain diseases after exposure to contaminated drinking water. Compensating these victims, our nation’s heroes and their families, is simply the right thing to do,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC).

Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), a key advocate for those impacted by the contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, said he was “disappointed that we had to pressure the VA to do the right thing for our veterans in the first place.”

“The scientific research is strong, and the widespread denials of benefits will soon end,” Burr said. “Now, these veterans and their families members will not have to fight for benefits they are due.”

Health Benefits

The announcement follows the approval by Congress in 2012 of the Janey Ensminger Act, which provides no-cost health benefits to veterans who served at Camp Lejeune for 30 days or more between 1953 and 1987 for 15 qualifying conditions.

The passage of that legislation came after advocates tirelessly made the case that their health conditions stemmed from exposure to contaminated water from wells at the base. The wells eventually were shut down the mid-1980s.

The law was unusual in that it also mandated reimbursement of expenses related to the 15 qualifying conditions for eligible family members who resided at Camp Lejeune during the period of contamination, although those benefits don’t begin until all other health insurance is applied.

“This bill ends a decade-long struggle for those who serve at Camp Lejeune,” President Barack Obama said during the signing of the bill.

Still, while that law provides healthcare at no cost for specific conditions, it did not necessarily qualify a veteran for any related disability compensation. The VA now is working toward that.

Gavin Smith, founder of Civilian Exposure, a Camp Lejuene advocacy group, told U.S. Medicine that the recent announcement is a “great step in the right direction” for veterans. Camp Lejeune veterans had faced a claims process that was “loaded with red tape” when it came to filing a claim related to exposure to the water, he said, suggesting presumptive status should ease the process.

Still, he said he hopes that the “civilian folks that worked there aren’t left behind.” While the Janey Ensminger Act applies to veterans and affected family members, he explained, it does not cover other workers who were employed on the base and were exposed to the contaminated water.

“That law does nothing for them,” Smith said, adding that he would like to see legislation passed to help that group.

“I don’t think amending the 2012 law would be the answer. I think it is probably not the best way to go,” he noted, “I think there may be another set of legislation needed for the rest of the community affected at the base.”

Smith began the nonprofit organization to raise national awareness about civilian exposure to contaminated Camp Lejeune water in honor of his father, a civilian supervisor at the base for 25 years who died of acute leukemia in 2008.