CAPE CARTERET, N.C. — When his father passed away from acute leukemia in 2008, Carteret County native Gavin Smith didn’t suspect it was related to toxic exposure.
Five years later, he found out it likely was.
Smith’s father, a U.S. Army veteran, was exposed to contaminated drinking water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, where he worked as a civilian for 25 years. In 2014, a government study found civilians who worked at Camp Lejeune during the exposure period had a higher likelihood of dying from leukemia than civilian workers at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton without exposure.
“I think had it not been for this, he’d still be here,” Smith said, who honors his father’s memory with a nonprofit he started in 2013 called Civilian Exposure, a reader-supported website dedicated to toxic exposure in the military.
Initially focused on Camp Lejeune, Civilian Exposure has since expanded to profile contamination at other military bases, specific health conditions and chemicals of concern.
“It’s not just Lejeune,” Smith said. “It’s actually a systemic problem in the military. I hear from people every day from dozens of bases all over the country that have had similar issues with water contamination or the same type of chemicals.”
A main goal of Civilian Exposure, which reaches thousands of readers per month, is supporting the people who were exposed at Lejeune from 1953 to 1987 and their families.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs recognizes 15 illnesses for which exposed Camp Lejeune veterans can receive free care and family members may receive reimbursements related to out-of-pocket care if they lived on base. Veterans are eligible for disability for eight conditions, but advocates say more could be done, like passing the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2021 and granting survivors more benefits.
“(The act) is important to establish the magnitude of what happened at Lejeune,” Smith said. “I think it would open up the door for other bases and communities that have similar issues to start to make some progress as well.”
The legislation would let victims’ cases be heard in court, a right denied by a Supreme Court interpretation of a North Carolina statute in 2014.
“It’s very hard to keep people positive and moving forward when it’s dragged on for so long, but I think it’s closer now than what it has been,” Smith said. “Part of that is the shifting interest in environmental justice and environmental awareness.”
Bringing the general public into the conversation is one way to move the toxic exposure issue forward, Smith says, who wants to ensure that civilian workers who were exposed on military bases are not left out.
“There’s a lot of people out there that have costly medical bills that are having to leverage everything just to give their loved one the best care,” Smith said. “It’s rough on people financially, mentally and spiritually, because it takes a toll.”
Civilian Exposure connects with victims and survivors through reports, podcasts and newsletters and by sharing the stories of readers. Learn more at www.civilianexposure.org.