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Women Speak Out About their Difficult Pregnancies While Living on Base at Camp Lejeune

Women are speaking out about their experiences going through complicated pregnancies and losing their babies while living at Marine Corp base Camp Lejeune.

The North Carolina base has been plagued with scandal over its contaminated drinking water and its connection to cancer diagnoses in the officials who served there.

Military personnel stationed at Camp Lejeune from 1975 to 1985 had at least a 20 percent higher risk for a number of cancers than those stationed elsewhere, federal health officials said. 

NBC News investigation ‘Baby Heaven: The Buried Stories of Camp Lejeune,’ which is set to air Thursday at 9 p.m. on NBC News NOW, Cynthia McFadden spoke to women who shared their heartbreaking experiences of loss.

‘When I had her, they didn’t bring her to me right away. I’m thinking in my mind they were trying to prepare me for what she looked like. One nurse said, ‘I’m going to be honest with you, I’ve never seen a case like this, so we’re going to call in some specialists,” said Ann Johnson, the wife of a military member.

‘They tell me that her brain stem didn’t develop and a lot of other things. She had a cleft lip and cleft palate, which left an opening in the front of her mouth.’ 

‘She couldn’t cry out loud, you could see her open her mouth and you could see tears roll down her eye, but she couldn’t make any noise,’ said Johnson.

Johnson gave birth in 1984 when she was 18-years-old and had recently married her husband.

Her baby was take then hospital at Duke University where after seven weeks of treatment doctors said there was nothing left they could do and she died in her mother’s arms while being driven home.

‘During my pregnancy it became complicated. I ha

d a condition called polyhydramnios, which means for some reason amniotic fluid was just backing up in me and I just begin to balloon. I gained 120 pounds in that one pregnancy,’ Johnson said.

‘When I talk about it, it takes me back to that moment I can feel everything I that I felt then. Confused, hurt, helpless, desperate. There’s nothing wrong with me, what happened to my baby?’

Hundreds of infants died at Camp Lejeune, so many that a special section of the cemetery called Baby Heaven is filled with graves for them.

Federal health officials called the research done on the water at Camp Lejeune one the largest ever done in the United States to assess cancer risk by comparing a group who live and worked in a polluted environment to a similar group that did not.

The study found military personnel stationed at the Marine Corps Base were at higher risk for some types of leukemia and lymphoma and cancers of the lung, breast, throat, esophagus and thyroid. Civilians who worked at the base also were at a higher risk for a shorter list of cancers.

The study is ‘quite impressive,’ but cannot count as final proof that the tainted drinking water caused the cancers, said David Savitz, a Brown University disease researcher who is consulting for plaintiffs’ attorneys in Camp Lejeune-related litigation.

Camp Lejeune was built in a sandy pine forest along the North Carolina coast in the early 1940s. Its drinking water was contaminated with industrial solvents from the early 1950s to 1985. The contamination — detected in the early 1980s — was blamed on a poorly maintained fuel depot and indiscriminate dumping on the base, as well as from an off-base dry cleaner.

Before wells were shut down, contaminated water was piped to barracks, offices, housing for enlisted families, schools and the base’s hospital. Military personnel and families drank it, cooked with it and bathed in it.

The contamination has spawned a wave of litigation by law firms who have aggressively sought out clients with TV ads.

People who got sick after being at Camp Lejeune have accused the Marine Corps of failing to protect the health of its personnel and criticized the federal government for being slow to investigate. Marine Corps officials have repeatedly said that federal environmental regulations for these cancer-causing chemicals were not finalized until 1989, after the wells were shut down.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, an Atlanta-based sister agency to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has done about a half-dozen studies focused on health problems in people at Camp Lejeune. Those studies were smaller than the new one, and had varied focuses, including male breast cancer rates and birth defects in children born to base personnel.

A federal law signed by President Joe Biden in August 2022 included language to address concerns of people who developed certain health problems they believe were linked to Camp Lejeune water contamination. It gave them a two-year window to file claims.

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