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Toxic Exposure – A Human Rights Issue

by Gavin P. Smith

Recently, we received reader feedback that sparked us to look at military base contamination at Camp Lejeune and other locations through a slightly different lens.

“This is not just a Military medical issue, it is a human rights issue…a can of worms our government does not want opened.”

That’s quite a profound statement. But the reader may be on to something here. We typically tend to frame the situation of military base contamination in terms of chemicals, environmental contamination, negligence or health/medical issues. While all of those are true, perhaps the idea that this is also fundamentally a human rights issue transcends all points of view. But what does “human rights issue” mean? Where do we go for a deeper understanding of what constitutes “human rights”?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has existed for almost 70 years. The declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris.  According to the UN, it was adopted

“as a common standard of achievements for all peoples and all nations. It sets out, for the first time, fundamental human rights to be universally protected.”

What’s in the document, and how is it relevant? Upon closer inspection, actually five (5) areas stand out as applicable to those exposed to toxic contamination, due to government negligence, aboard military bases.



Article 3 – “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Every member of the military, every civilian employee, every military spouse and every child that lived or served aboard contaminated military bases (such as Camp Lejeune) are included in “everyone”. They all have a right to life, liberty and security of person. Because of contamination, however, all of those rights have been stolen from those exposed. Contamination has caused a generational health catastrophe that not only has poisoned those that came in contact with chemicals involved, but also possibly future generations through damaged DNA. The right to life of the exposed, as well as their offspring, has been put into jeopardy by rampant military base contamination.

As a result, the liberty of those exposed and their immediate families has also been put into flux. Are they truly free? Free to live and pursue a life of their choosing? Absolutely not. Once exposed, once poisoned…the clock begins ticking on what related health condition will spawn first.  It could be years later before health troubles begin. Once they do, however, then they are no longer free to live a life of their choosing. The exposed now must think about going back and forth to doctors and specialists, scheduling procedures and treatments, spending money they do not have, and suffering day in and day out. Their right to liberty is diminished.

Are the exposed still secure? Financially speaking, not so much. Without proper healthcare or financial backing, bills begin to mount up. College funds and savings accounts become depleted. Homes are re-mortgaged or debt over-leveraged. Homes are lost and bank accounts emptied to keep up with endless medical expenses for unceasing health conditions. Are they secure? Is the family secure? Will the children and spouse of one who dies from exposure be secure after? No.


Inhuman Treatment:

Article 5 – “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

It can be argued that those exposed to military base contamination were indeed “subjected to inhuman treatment”.  Many of the chemicals on these bases have been known human carcinogens for decades. The science on the threat to humans from these chemicals has been established for some time, with constant studies underway.  The government and our military/defense ordered these chemicals for all of their bases and had lax disposal methods across the board.  They, through their lack of care and negligence, have subjected their service members, spouses, civilian employees, and children to inhuman treatment.


Right To An Effective Remedy:

Article 8 – “Everyone has the right to an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law.”

For Camp Lejeune victims, as well as those from other contaminated bases around the country and the world…we no longer have that right.  Exposing people to known carcinogens for decades, without properly informing them and without just compensation and care, goes against this right. The Department of Justice, in fighting against claimants, and the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, in throwing out the Lejeune multi-district litigation, denies the right of all exposed to an “effective remedy…for acts violating the fundamental rights granted him by the constitution or by law”. Those rights include ones prescribed in laws such as CERCLA.


Just And Favorable Conditions Of Work:

Article 23 –
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

There are numerous laws and agencies out there that should protect the exposed, from CERCLA law to the OSHA agency. For example, OSHA’s website reads as follows:

In order to ensure chemical safety in the workplace, information about the identities and hazards of the chemicals must be available and understandable to workers. OSHA’s Hazard Communication Standard (HCS) requires the development and dissemination of such information: 1) Chemical manufacturers and importers are required to evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they produce or import, and prepare labels and safety data sheets to convey the hazard information to their downstream customers; 2) All employers with hazardous chemicals in their workplaces must have labels and safety data sheets for their exposed workers, and train them to handle the chemicals appropriately. The training for employees must also include information on the hazards of the chemicals in their work area and the measures to be used to protect themselves.

It is painfully obvious that our DOD/military, through continuous military base contamination and denials, does NOT offer “favourable conditions of work”. Protecting the health of service members and base workers while on base should be top priority. When that is violated, or there is negligence involved, any detrimental harm to those exposed should be remedied.

*On a personal note, the wording of “free choice of employment” above is particularly important. Of all the issues and problems involved in military base contamination, the thing that bothers me most is that my late father (a former civilian employee at Camp Lejeune) had NO FREE or INFORMED CHOICE. Had he been informed of the pollutants at all, especially when they were first discovered on base in the early 1980s, perhaps he could have taken into consideration this critical piece of information and chose to leave the base for other employment away from such hazards. Instead, he worked (without any knowledge of what was going on) until retirement in 1998, constantly exposed to astronomical levels of TCE, PCE, Benzene and Vinyl Chloride in the water supply and wells (including a significant well ‘hotspot’ that was located right under his building). As a result, he passed of Acute Leukemia in 2008, never knowing that he had been poisoned. Because the base kept quiet initially, and through their continuing failure to adequately inform the public, my father never had a “choice” to avoid harm. Nor was he able to understand the source of his ailments, or have the knowledge to act preemptively and immediately upon exposure to mitigate potential health issues.


Protection from Circumstances Beyond Our Control:

Article 25 –
(1) Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

“circumstances beyond his control”

Again, in my personal note above, every exposure victim at bases around the country has been deprived of health, care, necessary services and security in their lives based on “circumstances beyond his control”. Like my father, no one at these bases had a choice to avoid harm. No one had the opportunity to distance themselves from potential exposure. Now, no one is getting the adequate medical care, necessary services, or security in event of sickness. How can we survive and have “a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of [ourselves] and of [our] family” if we are overwhelmed by exposure-induced sicknesses, constant medical treatments, overwhelming bills, and financial and emotional stress?

(2) Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

Finally, this is not just about service members. It’s bad enough that our dedicated service personnel and civilian defense employees were exposed. They had to be on the bases for their jobs. Yet, perhaps the worst part is that the spouses and children were also exposed. Where is the “special care and assistance” babies (and their parents) that were stillborn at Lejeune from in utero exposures?  Where is the “special care and assistance” for children born at Lejeune who survived their youth only to grow up to be sickened adults with multiple doctors and a dozen pills to take a day?



As government agencies continue to drag their feet with their bureaucratic rules, regulations, red tape and constant denials of responsibility, people are dying. As lawyers and courts continue to bicker over language and intent, people are dying. As financial, legal and medical remedies continue to be blocked, stalled or denied, people are dying. As military base contamination continues to be ignored or inadequately addressed, people are dying.  As the military continues to deny their negligence, people are dying.

Toxic exposure aboard military bases violates at least 5 tenets of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Therefore, military base contamination, of any kind, appears to be a violation of our basic human rights.

To read the UDHR document, click this link: Civilian Exposure Resource Docs – Universal Declaration of Human Rights


Do you believe this is a fundamental human rights issue? Leave your comment below.

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Margaret "Luanne" Brannen January 12, 2017 - 5:30 pm

My husband passed away on February 9, 2105 from this third battle with cancer. He was a Marine stationed at Camp LeJeune from 1965 through 1969 and served 13 months at Camp Hansen, Okinawa. He was trained as a heavy equipment mechanic during his service and worked this job on base as well as Camp Hansen. His first cancer we rectal, second cancer was melanoma on the palm of his hand and the third cancer was small cell lung cancer which he perished from. He also was diagnosed with cardio vascular disease and had 10 stents in his body over the course of 15 years. When we found that the water was contaminated at LeJeune, we applied for help under the conditions that were set forth by the Marine Corps. He was repeatedly denied compensation. He was treated by civilian doctors and the VA over the period of his illnesses. Each cancer was determined to be very rare for a man of his age. Denial of every illness was forthcoming from the VA. Now I am a widow I am trying to pursue his compensation as I have nothing left because he could not get any type of insurance to compensate for his illnesses. I know in my heart that this man, my husband of 49 years was poisoned by the Marine Corps, denied compensation and was waiting for him to die, like many other Marines that served their country. They covered up the risks that he was exposed to both at Camp LeJeune and at Camp Hansen. He was exposed to the chemicals, drank the water and while in Okinawa, Agent Orange that covered the equipment coming out of Viet Nam. He told me that most of this equipment was covered with vegetation and mud and he once found a live hand grenade in a piece of equipment that the men worked on. This equipment was not washed down in any form prior to being delivered to Camp Hansen. When the equipment arrived at the base, the men were given a pressure washer to clean this equipment. They were not given any type of protection to shield them from the sprayer that they used to wash off of the contamination on the equipment. The men were covered with the mud and vegetation and this was a daily activity for thirteen months.
I am devastated, tired and have given up as he/we have received denial after denial for the past seven years from the U.S. Marine Corps. They have found every excuse that they can come up with to deny my husband, me and my family any type of compensation. A secret that they refuse to acknowledge that this had anything to do with his exposure to the water, agent orange or any other toxic substance that these men were exposed to during their service.
The latest denial came to me two months after he passed away. He suffered unbelievable hardships, pain and eventually died in my arms with his children surrounding him.

William Collins January 28, 2017 - 12:13 pm

My name is William Collins I grew up aboard Camp Lejeune in Tarawa Terrace Berkeley Manor also worked aboard the base I now have excessive diverticula in stage 4 degenerative disc problem for my low back to my neck I know this is a part of the 8 things that the VA says contributed to this but I don’t believe them I don’t believe anything the VA has to say I don’t not know how or where to get help in this matter God bless everybody exposed


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