Marine Fights For AnswersOct 3, 2002 | Cox News Service
From 1982 to 1985, Jeff Byron served his country as a Marine air traffic controller, living on Camp Lejeune with thousands of other Marine families.
His small daughter, Andrea, was often sick, and Rachel, born at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, suffered from a number of birth defects.
On March 27, 2000, a letter almost discarded as junk mail came as a shock and a revelation, Byron said.
Byron and his wife Mary learned that the entire time they had lived on Camp Lejeune, their water had been contaminated with toxic chemicals. Every sip, every bath, every meal, exposed the couple and their children to dry-cleaning chemicals, fuel additives and chemical degreasers.
The letter, from a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, invited the couple now living in Ohio to participate in a study on the effects of hazardous chemicals on humans.
They joined the study and decided it was time to take action.
Jeff Byron became a board member of The Stand Toxic Homefront Empowered Survivors Take All Necessary Defense a group that works to pressure the government to help families who may have been harmed by Camp Lejeune's contaminated water.
"It's not just for the Byron family; it's for all these people," said Jeff Byron, now a process engineer for Byron Products. "We want to make sure they can get help."
The Stand recently launched a Web site, www.watersurvivors.com, to reach military personnel and their families who may have been exposed to chemicals in the base water supply. The site offers a registry of alleged victims, information on the water contamination and links to relevant Web sites.
The letter the Byrons received invited the couple to participate in a study conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the Department of Health and Human Services.
According to the letter, the water in certain housing areas at Camp Lejeune was contaminated with trichlorethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene, dichlorethylene (DCE), methylene chloride and vinyl chloride. These compounds are often used in dry-cleaning solutions, metal degreasers and fuel additives.
In October 1980, the U.S. Army's Environmental Hygiene Agency discovered unidentified chlorinated hydrocarbons in the Hadnot Point water system on base. In May 1982, Grainger Laboratories reported to Camp Lejeune officials that TCE and PCE was in two water treatment systems: Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point.
"The Marine Corps never once warned us," Jeff Byron said. "They didn't do anything to protect us."
In February 1985, water samples taken from a well at the Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant which served the Byron family had a PCE level of 1,580 parts per billion and TCE levels of 57 ppb, according to Marine Corps records. Under Environmental Protection Agency guidelines, 5 ppb is the upper limit for TCE and PCE in drinking water.
In 1985, the base shut down about nine wells, mainly around the Tarawa Terrace housing area, said Maj. Steve Cox, a Marine Corps spokesman.
"Since 1985, there's been no further contamination," Cox said.
The contamination to Tarawa Terrace had been traced to ABC One Hour Drycleaners, which operated across the street from the base. A base well was about 900 feet from the dry cleaners, where process water leached into groundwater, Marine Corps officials said.
Contaminated wells that serve the Tarawa Terrace Water Treatment Plant and other polluted wells on base were closed in 1985, and the Tarawa Terrace plant was completely shut down in March 1987. Ironically, Jeff Byron said he patronized ABC One Hour Drycleaners, which is still in business today.
"I took my uniforms to them," he said.
56 ER visits
The study in which the letter asked the Byrons to participate is limited to the nearly 17,000 families whose children were born between 1968 and 1985 while they were living in Camp Lejeune base housing. The objective of the study is to determine what effects the contaminated water may have had on unborn children.
The study was commissioned in 1999 by the Department of the Navy, Cox said. Preliminary results of that study, in which 13,000 families participated, are not anticipated until the end of October, he said.
"There were a number of issues being reported that suggested a possible link to the water supply," Cox said. "We felt it was prudent and the right thing to do to go ahead and commission the study at that time."
Mary Byron said she had no idea there was a problem with the drinking water.
She said she never noticed any foul odors or bad taste. But she did notice that her toddler, Andrea, was often sick.
"She had rashes, high fevers all the time, she had a lot of coughs, a lot of ear infections, fevers of unknown origin," said Mary Byron.
Because they were new parents who lived away from relatives, the Byrons said at the time they didn't realize how unusual it was.
From October 1982 to April 1985, Andrea visited the base hospital emergency room 56 times three of those visits were within 30 hours on Nov. 26 and 27, 1983, when her fever reached as high as 105.8 degrees. Before the move to Camp Lejeune, Andrea's only doctor visits were well-baby exams, Mary Byron said.
Daughter Rachel, born while her family was stationed at Camp Lejeune, had a host of health conditions and birth defects, including a heart murmur, arachnoid cyst on her spine, a missing phlangial flap, umbilical hernia, scoliosis, protruding birthmark and rotated, dimpled ears.
Shortly after Rachel's' birth, the family returned to Ohio, where less than six months later the Byrons noticed bruises all over Andrea's body. Tests revealed she had a serious, life-threatening case of aplastic anemia. Andrea
had to be quarantined at Children's Hospital Medical Center in Cincinnati, where she underwent several blood transfusions before improving.
Andrea's aplastic anemia is now in remission, and she works as an assistant manager in a clothing store in Florence, Ky. Rachel, who still faces surgery to correct conditions she's had from birth, is a high school student.
Jeff Byron said he's encouraging families to file claims for damages. The family has filed claims for both children, $3.5 million for Andrea and $4 million for Rachel, to cover future medical bills.
"I want compensation for the turmoil she's been through," he said. "We want our children taken care of medically."
Jeff Byron said his family has suffered greatly, emotionally and financially, with doctor visits, hospital stays, surgeries, medications, blood tests, and lost wages from having to take off work to take his children to doctors and hospitals, plus many sleepless nights.
Worst of all, he said, he believes his daughters' health problems could have been avoided had the Marine Corps shut down the contaminated wells sooner. And the base had many empty water tanks they used to supply water to troops in battle.
"Why didn't they use them?" he said. "I signed a paper that says if a bullet hits me in the heart -- OK. But I didn't sign that for them," he said of his wife and children.
Despite all this, Jeff Byron said he is still proud to be a Marine.
"I got married in my dress blues," he said. "I still love the Marine Corps. They did a lot of good things for me," he said, wearing a silver ring bearing the Marine emblem on his right hand. "We had good memories, and a lot of friendships."
The Marines have sayings and battle cries that unite all Marines, such as Semper Fi, which means always faithful, Jeff Byron said.
"I want them to be faithful to me," he said.