How to Know if You Qualify for VA Disability Benefits and Have the Right to File a Lawsuit
Who would have thought that thousands of U.S. Marines would be exposed to deadly peril while encamped within the United States? And that the service members and their families would pay the ultimate price for their government’s negligence? Yet, that is exactly what’s happening to veterans who served at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, drinking and bathing for decades in contaminated water. Now, veterans who are literally fighting for their lives are also fighting to receive the medical treatment, VA disability benefits, and personal injury compensation they deserve.
Whether you or your loved ones receive just compensation may depend on your ability to recognize the symptoms of Camp Lejeune water contamination. For this reason, we present this article summarizing the problem and the conditions from which veterans are suffering.
What Was in the Water at Camp Lejeune?
From August 1, 1953, to December 31, 1987, servicemembers and their families, working and/or residing at the U.S. Marine Corps base near Jacksonville, North Carolina, were exposed to water contaminated by toxic chemicals which included:
- Trichloroethylene — TCE is a clear, colorless, non-flammable, water-soluble liquid. It is commonly used as an industrial degreasing solvent for cleaning metal parts, but it is also used in adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids, and spot removers.
In March 2023, a group of scientists researching Parkinson’s Disease called for a ban on TCE, which they claim, “is contributing to the global rise of [Parkinson’s Disease]….” Their study, “Trichloroethylene: An Invisible Cause of Parkinson’s Disease?,” was published in the Journal of Parkinson’s Disease. TCE is banned in the European Union except for authorized industrial uses. Within the United States, Minnesota, and New York have banned TCE, but the federal government has not acted.
- Tetrachloroethylene — PCE, also known as “perc,” is a colorless liquid widely used as dry-cleaning fluid and a metal degreasing solvent. PCE is also a building block for making other chemicals used in consumer products. On June 8, 2023, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a proposal to ban most PCE uses due to serious health risks, such as neurotoxicity and cancer.
- Vinyl chloride — VC is a colorless gas that burns easily. One of the most widely used petrochemicals in the world, VC is chiefly used to produce the polymer, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a hard plastic resin used to make plastic products, such as pipes, wire and cable coatings, and packaging materials. VC is also present in tobacco smoke. VC exposure has been associated with an increased risk of hepatic angiosarcoma, a rare form of liver cancer, as well as primary liver cancer, brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.
- Benzene — At room temperature, Benzene is a colorless or light-yellow liquid with a sweet odor that does not dissolve entirely in water and will float on top. Highly flammable, Benzene evaporates quickly, but its vapor is heavier than air. A natural chemical, Benzene is formed in volcanoes and forest fires, but it is also naturally found in crude oil, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Benzene is among the most widely used industrial chemicals in the United States.
It is used to make plastics, resins, nylon, synthetic fibers, lubricants, rubbers, dyes, detergents, drugs, and pesticides. Exposure to Benzene can cause a wide range of immediate symptoms, such as dizziness, vomiting, fatigue, rapid heartbeat, and even death. Long-term effects include anemia, susceptibility to infection, fertility problems, birth defects, leukemia, and other cancers.
Because toxic conditions existed for a 34-year period, experts estimate that more than one million people may have sustained illnesses related to Camp Lejeune water.
Recent Legislation Expands Veterans’ Rights to Compensation
The Veterans Administration has determined that service members and their families who spent at least 30 days at Camp Lejeune during the contamination period and who developed certain health conditions are eligible for VA disability benefits. In addition, Congress recently passed the Camp Lejeune Justice Act of 2022 as part of The PACT Act of 2022. The Act allows military veterans who fit the Camp Lejeune disability criteria to file civil lawsuits against the U.S. government for the harm they suffered. Such lawsuits allow victims of the military’s negligence to recover personal injury compensation, which includes payments for pain and suffering.
However, to qualify for VA benefits or to file a civil lawsuit, a person must have a diagnosis or symptoms of an illness associated with the contaminated water of Camp Lejeune.
A presumptive condition is an illness or disability that is so closely tied to a suspected source, that the VA presumes the source caused the condition. When an eligible Camp Lejeune veteran claims a presumptive condition, there is no need to prove the source caused the condition or even that the veteran was exposed to the source. All the veteran needs to prove is service in the designated area at the designated time and have one of the presumptive illnesses.
The VA established a Final Rule in January 2017, designating the following diseases as presumptive conditions of Camp Lejeune water contamination:
- Parkinson’s disease — The Parkinson’s Foundation lists the 10 early warning signs of PD as tremors, shrinking handwriting, loss of smell, trouble sleeping, trouble walking, constipation; a softening, breathy voice; facial masking, dizziness or fainting, slouching posture. If you have noticed these symptoms, you should request an evaluation.
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma — This is a type of cancer of the lymphatic system. According to the Mayo Clinic, symptoms include swollen lymph nodes in your neck, armpits, or groin; abdominal pain or swelling; chest pain, coughing or trouble breathing; persistent fatigue, fever, night sweats, and unexplained weight loss.
- Multiple myeloma — The Mayo Clinic warns that this cancer of the blood plasma might not show early symptoms. When symptoms do occur early on, they include bone pain, especially in the spine or chest, nausea, constipation, loss of appetite, mental fogginess or confusion, fatigue, frequent infections, weight loss, weakness or numbness in the legs, and excessive thirst.
- Liver cancer — The most common form of liver cancer is hepatocellular carcinoma. Its warning signs include weight loss, loss of appetite, upper abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, general weakness, fatigue, abdominal swelling, jaundiced eyes, and pale, chalky stools.
- Kidney cancer — The American Cancer Society advises that early signs include blood in the urine, low back pain on one side, a lump on the side or lower back, fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss, fever, and anemia.
- Bladder cancer — The American Cancer Society explains that blood in the urine is often the first sign of bladder cancer. You might also experience changes in urination habits, such as having to go more often, pain or burning during urination, urgency even when your bladder isn’t full, trouble urinating or a weak urine stream, and getting up to urinate many times during the night.
- Aplastic anemia / myelodysplastic syndromes — These are rare disorders of the bone marrow and blood that you might first notice due to fatigue and weakness, frequent infections, unexplained or easy bruising; nosebleeds, bleeding gums, or any bleeding that lasts too long; unusually pale skin, shortness of breath, red or purple spots on the skin caused by bleeding under the skin, fast or irregular heartbeat, dizziness, fever, and headache.
- Adult leukemia — Leukemia is cancer of the blood-forming tissues, such as bone marrow and the lymphatic system. There are numerous varieties, some more common in adults and others more common in children. You might suspect leukemia if you experience fever or chills, fatigue, frequent infections, weight loss, swollen lymph nodes, enlarged liver or spleen, easy bleeding or bruising, recurrent nosebleeds, tiny red spots in your skin, excessive sweating (especially at night), and bone pain.
If you have one of these conditions, you are only required to prove that:
- You served at USMC Base Camp Lejeune or MCAS New River
- Your service fell between August 1953 and December 1987
- Your service lasted at least 30 days
- You did not receive a dishonorable discharge
In addition to claiming VA disability benefits, you should consider a negligence lawsuit to recover additional compensation.
Diseases Associated With Camp Lejeune Toxins
In addition to the illnesses for which the VA has established a strong causal connection, some illnesses strongly correlate to exposure to the toxins we’ve been discussing. The VA calls these illnesses “associated conditions,” because there are enough incidents of the illness among exposed veterans to arouse suspicion, but not enough evidence to create a presumption. When a veteran has an associated condition, proof of exposure must be sufficient to conclude that the contamination “more likely than not” caused the condition.
The VA has a long list of associated conditions, which include:
- Cancer — In addition to the presumptive conditions above, associated cancers include breast (male and female), esophageal, and lung. However, veterans have been able to obtain benefits for cancers not on the VA’s list. There is sufficient research to support claims for brain cancer, cervical cancer, Hodgkin disease, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, rectal cancer, and soft tissue cancer.
- Fertility problems and birth defects — Veterans and their spouses have experienced male and female infertility, as well as small gestational size, low birth weight, and miscarriages. Birth defects in children of Camp Lejeune veterans have included oral cleft defects, neural tube defects, choanal atresia, major malformations, and cardiac defects. Some studies support associations of the toxins found in Camp Lejeune water with such birth defects as congenital male genital abnormalities, neural tube defects, and asthma in infants, central nervous system defects, genitalia defects, and clubfoot.
- Systemic sclerosis — This rare chronic disease is characterized by diffuse fibrosis and vascular abnormalities in the skin, joints, and internal organs. Common symptoms include Raynaud syndrome, polyarthralgia, dysphagia, heartburn, skin tightening, and contractures of the fingers.
- Scleroderma — This is a chronic disease in which the body produces too much collagen, leading to hardening and stiffening of the skin, joints, muscles, and even internal organs. Symptoms include hard, thickening, or tight skin; hair loss; dry, itchy skin; changes in skin color, stiff joints, muscle shortening and weakness, and loss of tissue beneath the skin.
- Renal toxicity scleroderma — When scleroderma invades the kidneys, a patient can experience very high blood pressure, heart palpitations, seizures, severe headaches, blurred vision, breathlessness, nausea, and vomiting.
- Neurobehavioral disorders — A significant pool of scientific literature suggests a positive association between some of the compounds in Camp Lejeune water and neurobehavioral problems like poor coordination, learning difficulties, chronic headaches, visual perception issues, confusion, poor concentration, delayed reaction time, depression, anxiety, or mood disorders.
- Hepatic steatosis — Also known as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), this condition results when the liver cannot properly metabolize fat. This is the most common form of liver disease, and it puts patients in jeopardy of scarring or liver failure. The Mayo Clinic warns that patients usually do not experience early symptoms, including fatigue, pain, or discomfort in the upper right abdomen.
Naturally, more evidence is coming in, as Camp Lejeune veterans report disabling conditions that the VA has not designated as presumptive or associated. These cases include diabetes mellitus, sleep apnea, depression, fibroid sarcoma, colon cancer, mesothelioma, prolactinoma, gynecomastia, Crohn’s disease, hidradenitis suppurativa, amyloidosis, endocrine disorders, skin conditions, urinary tract conditions, cardiovascular disorders, and various ways in which immune system functions have been impaired. As these “orphan” cases accumulate, our attorneys are pressing the VA to add frequently occurring conditions to their lists.
Winning Approval for Your Camp Lejeune VA Benefits Case
Given the extensive list of presumptive and associated conditions, it’s tempting to think your application could gain easy approval. Unfortunately, the VA continues to deny a high percentage of legitimate claims, often because the applications lacked the necessary elements that VA claim reviewers are trained to look for.
The VA might have rejected your claim due to:
- Uncertainty surrounding your service at Camp Lejeune
- Uncertainty in the diagnosis or explanation of your illness
- Incomplete or faulty claim preparation
Fortunately, you do have the right to appeal, and an experienced VA benefits attorney at our firm can help. We have successfully litigated well over 1,000 appeals at the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims and recovered millions of dollars for disabled veterans. When you retain Gang & Associates, LLC to for your rights, you get a distinguished team of professionals who are determined to secure the benefits you deserve. Contact us today at 888.481.4428 or online.