The VA’s ‘Experts’ On Toxic Chemicals May Not Know What They’re Talking About

Pfc. Donald Burpee spent four months of 1975 living at Camp Lejeune, a Marine Corps base in North Carolina. On July 7 of this year, at the age of 59, he lost an eight-year battle with kidney cancer — one of a number of illnesses linked with exposure to the toxic chemicals that tainted the drinking water at Camp Lejeune between the 1950s and 1980s.

The Department of Veterans Affairs provided Burpee with medical coverage, including hospice, but repeatedly denied his claims for disability benefits. Burpee died not knowing whether his wife, four children and four grandchildren would be taken care of in the future.

“They throw up so many roadblocks to you, it’s unreal,” said Brenda Burpee, Donald’s widow.

Camp Lejeune’s water was contaminated by dozens of chemicals beginning in at least 1953, though it was only discovered in the early 1980s. The contamination has been traced to leaking underground storage tanks, industrial spills and the disposal of solvents from an on-base dry cleaner. Among the chemicals, trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), vinyl chloride and benzene are thought to be the most damaging to human health. Lejeune veterans have reported ailments including prostate and bladder cancer, as well as chronic kidney disease. Kidney cancer is not uncommon.

Burpee’s family found the VA’s denial baffling. Given the science supporting a connection between exposure to TCE and kidney cancer, what was the rationale for withholding disability?

The family learned that the VA’s decision rested largely on the opinion of one of 22 experts recently hired by the agency to review veterans’ claims, part of what’s known as the subject matter expert program. The program was launched in 2013 to ensure “consistent and accurate decisions for Camp Lejeune veterans,” according to internal VA documents. But veterans’ advocates and scientists have raised troubling —> Read More