Promoting Health from Camp Lejeune to Cancun

Elise Miller, MEd

Camp Lejeune sounds like a lovely place to spend a summer vacation, right? Fishing, swimming, enjoying the great outdoors. Unfortunately, for a number of US Marines and their families based at Camp Lejeune, NC, their experience has been anything but serene. The reason is not due to harsh training conditions, but to exposures to contaminants in the water. In fact, the camp was the site of what is believed to be the largest drinking water chemical contamination event in US. history. For decades, from the 1950s to the mid to late 1980s, the drinking water contained trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, benzene and other chlorinated chemicals from base activities and leaks from a civilian dry cleaning establishment adjacent to the base. Camp Lejeune was officially listed as a Superfund site in 1989. Now more than 65 cases of male breast cancer have been diagnosed of those who served and lived at Camp Lejeune – a very rare cancer that has been associated with exposures to these chemicals. In addition, a significant number of other cancers, neurological disorders, birth defects and related health conditions have been reported by the Marines and their families who lived there during those decades. We know chemical contamination and environmental injustice, as highlighted on other CHE partner calls, often go hand-in-hand. But even people who are supposed to be highly valued by our country-namely, our military veterans – are also discounted or ignored if they suggest their health problems might be linked to chemical exposures on bases in the US or in combat zones abroad. Marines with male breast cancer? Impossible? Think again.

So what does it take to convince those in industry and government that our fossil fuel-based economic system is no longer viable? And that the short-term gains are not worth the long-term health costs to ourselves, our children and our planet?

One way is to bring together those representing a wide range of health-affected sectors to learn about environmental health science and policy. Last month in Washington, DC, one of CHE’s key leaders in the Learning and Developmental Disabilities Initiative, Maureen Swanson, organized such a meeting with a number of other colleagues. The realization among participants from organizations as diverse as the March of Dimes and the American Bladder Cancer Society was essentially this: Chemical contaminants serve as a common denominator – one that not only aligns our respective organizations towards a common goal (reducing exposures associated with escalating rates of chronic disease and disability), but also begs the question – what if all of our groups, with our hundreds of thousands of members, joined together to reform chemical policy, promote green chemistry, press for safer consumer products and greater investment in renewable energy sources? It was like a light bulb suddenly flooding a room. For those involved in CHE’s inception in 2002, this gathering was also a vision made manifest. The follow-up from the meeting to build and sustain these relationships is now energetically underway.

Another way is to build on the successes of those committed to putting health at the center of the discussions on climate change. Along those lines, please join us tomorrow, February 10th, for our CHE partner call: Report from the Cancun Climate Change Talks: NGOs Promote Health and Partner for Future Action at 10:00 AM Pacific / 1:00 PM Eastern to hear about the experience of representatives from NGOs based in the US, Europe and Africa who attended the recent Cancun climate change talks.

Most important, we invite you to add your energy and creative thinking to these efforts and many others to create the groundswell we need to put us on a clear trajectory towards a healthier future.

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