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DoD News Briefing - Col. Michael Lehnert, USMC

Presenters: Col. Michael Lehnert, USMC
November 01, 2000 2:00 PM EDT

(Also participating: Dr. Wendy Kaye, chief of Epidemiology and Surveillance at the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry)

Staff: Good afternoon. The purpose of this briefing is to provide you with information and background regarding the Marine Corps' efforts to assist the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in a health survey being conducted of military families who conceived or gave birth while living at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina between 1968 and 1985.

Colonel Michael Lehnert, head of Marine Corps Facilities and Services Division, will read a prepared statement, and then will be joined by Dr. Wendy Kaye. She is the chief of Epidemiology and Surveillance for the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. She is actually conducting the survey.

Together they'll try to answer your questions regarding the survey. I would tell you up-front that although we do not have answers to all of your questions, we'll do our best to provide those today. We may refer some of the very specific questions down to the people at Camp Lejeune, who have a more detailed knowledge of some of the water testing in those sites. But for the most part, I think we can answer your questions.

Colonel Lehnert?

Lehnert: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'm Colonel Mike Lehnert, head of Facilities and Services Division with the United States Marine Corps. I'm here today to ask for your assistance in helping us reach an additional 10,000 former residents of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune. The people we are trying to locate are the parents of children born or conceived while living in base family housing at Camp Lejeune from 1968 through 1985, who may have been exposed to contaminants in the water supply. We are trying to find them so they can participate in a survey being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry, the ATSDR.

ATSDR, a public health service agency, is attempting to investigate possible relationships between exposure to the contaminated water and the health of those children.

For your background, we began testing the water systems at Camp Lejeune in the early 1980s, in compliance with federal guidelines. The testing indicated we might have a quality concern with the water from both the Tarawa Terrace and Hadnot Point water distribution systems. When we confirmed the contamination of the water, we took the necessary steps to close the wells and notified the appropriate authorities. News of the situation and what the Corps was doing to guarantee quality water for the residents was carried in the base paper and the local media.

In 1999, ATSDR asked for our assistance in finding more residents for an additional survey. For the past year, Camp Lejeune and ATSDR officials have been trying to contact former residents who are part of the survey population using direct mail, news releases in and around military bases, and notices in military publications and at open houses.

To date, we have located over 6,500 former residents. We have made progress but we are still short of the goal. We need to have everyone who is a parent of a child who was born or conceived while living at Camp Lejeune during that period to participate in the survey. So we are expanding our efforts, beginning with this briefing today.

The people I've talked to have raised concerns about why it took us 15 years to start notifying people of this potential problem, and that is a valid concern. It would be virtually impossible for us or anyone else to go back and analyze the many decisions that were made with regard to this situation since 1985. What I can tell you is that I truly believe that the decisions that were made were based upon the best information that science could provide at that time.

When ATSDR came to us indicating there may be a cause for concern, we took action. We have families who have raised serious questions about their children's health in relation to the water at Camp Lejeune. Nothing we can say will ease their concern, but the health and welfare of our Marines and their families is of utmost importance to us. The best way we can help them today is to encourage everyone who is part of the survey population to contact ATSDR and participate in the survey. We need to complete this very important first step.

We have established a link for the survey on our home page at USMC.mil. There is information there on the survey itself and links to ATSDR. To participate in the actual survey, call 1-800-639-4270.

I thank you in advance for any assistance you can provide in helping us locate these individuals, and will be happy to take your questions.

At this time I would ask Dr. Kaye to join me.

Yes, sir?

Q: What can you tell us about this contaminant? What is it, and what do you know about -- are there already some documented cases of health effects at Camp Lejeune and somewhere else?

Lehnert: Dr. Kaye, do you want to --

Kaye: Sure. The two contaminants that we're primarily interested in are tetrachlorethylene, which is abbreviated PCE, and trichlorethylene, abbreviated TCE. PCE is a drycleaning solvent, and TCE is used as a degreaser, usually in mechanical processes.

There have been several studies that have looked at the health effects of these two chemicals on unborn children and have been linked to specific birth defects and childhood cancers, such as leukemia.

Q: Is it on military bases, or --

Kaye: No. These are in the general public, not necessarily at this facility.

Q: What is the nature of the threat for leukemia? I mean, is it a 10 percent chance, 5 percent? Where is --

Kaye: I couldn't really tell -- I can't really tell you off the top of my head. It's -- the one study it's based on is what happened in Woburn, Massachusetts. So there is an increase -- there is some concern about an increased risk.

Q: Are there any -- sorry. Are there any documented -- are there any complaints or indications from families who lived at Camp Lejeune during this period that there have been kind of health problems?

Kaye: We are -- that what the survey is out to try to establish. Usually in a community you might have these kinds of concerns brought to your attention. Because of the mobility of the Lejeune population as a training facility it would be unlikely that this would come to our attention without the survey.

Q: You said today that 6,500 people have been contacted so far. Among those people, are there any diseases or defects that you've found so far?

Kaye: We have not analyzed the data to date. We have to wait until the entire population is in.

Q: There were no complaints before this survey from people who lived at Lejeune about potential health problems.

Kaye: That's correct.

Q: You're seeking 10,000 more. But what is the potential pool of people who could be affected? You're talking about '68-'85 on Lejeune. On the whole -- the Lejeune base, correct?

Kaye: We are estimating that there were between -- about 16,500 children born or conceived at Camp Lejeune who lived in base housing between 1968-1985.

Q: What about (their parents ?) ?

Q: So that's the number we're referring to here of --

Kaye: Yes.

Q: Is it base housing in general, or just those two housing areas where

Kaye: It's all of base housing. Some of the facility got contaminated water and some did not. We need to contact everybody, because we compare those who got the water against those who did not.

Q: Which news agency first approached you, and why are you going forward with this information today?

Lehnert: We've talked to both Fox News and CNN. And the reason, though, that we're going forward with this information today is because we made an institutional decision that the only way we're going to reach this population is to go forward to the news agencies and ask for their help.

Sir.

Q: Yes. The dry cleaner that was off base that was, I guess, considered to be the source of at least some of the contaminants, is that for both the PCEs and the TCEs? Is that correct?

Lehnert: We're going to provide you with a complete chronology of everything that happened that will provide that information.

And I think, for the benefit of everybody here, it's a long process and we want you to see everything. So you'll get a chronology before you leave here.

Q: And would that explain also -- because it was the three wells on Tarawa Terrace -- correct? -- that were -- in which contaminants were found? But my question is why the other wells on the other part of the base were not found to have contaminants?

Lehnert: We did comprehensive water testing of all of the wells on board the base. And what we did was close those wells that were outside of the recommended specifications.

Q: When was that?

Lehnert: The testing started in the early 80s, and we made the decision to cap the wells in 1985 as a precautionary measure.

Q: But then why the population outside that area -- or, I mean, of the 16,500 babies who were conceived or born. You're looking for people who are outside of that area as well, correct?

Kaye: I think there's some confusion because the names of some of the housing locations and the names of the water systems are the same, but the water systems covered areas larger than just the housing areas with those names. I think that may be part of the confusion.

And we also need a comparison group because we're looking to see whether there are more problems in those who got contaminated water than who did not. And so that's why we need everyone.

Q: Why are the risks simply associated with the children and not with the parents?

Kaye: There are some things in the literature that look at adults as well. But we viewed the fetus as the most susceptible subpopulation. We're starting with that group. If we find some problems in this population, then we will discuss it with the Marine Corps and others and decide whether we should do additional studies in this population.

Q: The water distribution systems, I gather, were confined to Camp Lejeune, or did they go outside the base?

Lehnert: The water distribution systems are confined to Camp Lejeune.

Other questions?

Q: Are you, in effect, inviting litigants to come to the Marine Corps and say, you know, I have problems, or -- what do you expect to come out of this?

Lehnert: Yes. What we are doing today is inviting Marines and their family members to participate in this survey because their health is a matter of concern to us.

You know, the motto, "Always Faithful" doesn't stop at the date that they leave the Marine Corps.

Q: If CNN or Fox hadn't come forward with this story, would this press conference still be happening? Would you still be coming out publicly with this information?

Lehnert: I believe so. I don't know whether the timing would have been the same. But I took over about two and a half months ago. This was one of the items that I was briefed on. We decided to take an internal look at what we'd been doing so far. We looked at it, we talked to the ATSDR, and we determined that they needed more help, and this seemed to be the best way to get the help on the road.

Q: When do you expect to release results?

Kaye: Well, it's really dependent on how soon we can interview the other people we'd like to participate in the survey. So we're looking for people to try to get that information out for us. So if there are any Marines who were stationed at the base and had children or conceived children while living in the base housing between '68 and '85, we're encouraging them to call us about our survey and see if they're interested in participating. It is voluntary. But we would encourage them to contact use, or at least get more information, and they can do that at 1-800-639-4270.

Q: Thank you.

Staff: I think I have one point of clarification for your question. Several media outlets have made us aware that there are individuals who do have specific health concerns. There have been some concerns that are raised from among the survey population. We have not been through the data specifically, and that's part of the ATSDR study, but we are aware, at least anecdotally, that there are people within the survey population who do have health concerns. The specifics of that are unknown at this time.

Q: Okay. I have one more clarification question, too. The press advisory on DefenseLink said 1968 to 1986. Was that a typo or --

Kaye: I think the confusion is is that we're interested in people who were born or conceived at Lejeune between 1968 and 1985; and if you were conceived at Lejeune in '85, you might have been born in '86. So I think that's maybe where the confusion came in.

Q: Is it prior to or during '85?

Kaye: Up through December 31st, 1985; through 1985.

Q: Thank you.

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