Last month, thousands of Marines and their families were blocked in federal court from pursuing their claim that the government had given them cancer.
Before expert witnesses could be called to testify, the United States Court of Appeals let stand its earlier ruling that their lawsuit came too late. The court claimed that the suit failed to meet the requirement of a state statute banning claims arising more than 10 years after the final occurrence of a harmful act.
The decision affected people exposed to contaminated drinking water while stationed at a base in North Carolina, Camp Lejeune.
The genetic mutation that cause cancer can take decades to manifest themselves, unfortunately far longer than the North Caroline statute in question allowed. This is not the first time that man-made laws trump laws of science. Even when legal obstacles can be overcome, a link between cancer and environmental pollutants is exceedingly difficult to establish, whether in a laboratory or a court of law.
To date there have been only two residential cancer clusters in the country that have been linked to environmental toxins, Camp Lejeune being the third.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit lived at the base from the 1950s through 1985. During this period, the drinking water was polluted with dry-cleaning fluid, organic solvents and benzene. All these chemicals are on the National Toxicology Program’s list of known and probably carcinogens.
Oddly enough, epidemiological studies published last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Camp Lejeune’s rate of cancer mortality was lower than that of the general public. 1,078 cases among the Marines during a 10-year period, when 1,272 would have been expected in a population that size.
Regardless, epidemiologists suspected that the numbers may have been distorted by a “healthy soldier” or “healthy veteran” effect the military and their families tend to receive better medical care than most people, making them less likely to succumb to cancer.
In order to account for this discrepancy, experts compared cancer deaths at Camp Lejeune with those at Camp Pendleton, in Southern California, where there was no water contamination.
Marines who had served at Lejeune were 10% more likely to die from cancer than their Pendleton counterparts. Deaths from kidney cancer were 35% more likely. Overall 16 of 21 types of cancer showed increases at Lejeune.
The more unusual a cancer, the harder it is to separate genuine influences from statistical noise. For example, there were about 80 Lejeune veterans who came forward with diagnoses of male breast cancer. The annual incidence of this condition is about 1.4 cases per 100,000 men – about 1 percent of the rate for women.
Maybe it is time for statutes to catch up to biology.