Toxic Exposure on Military Bases

A Significant Risk Factor for Miscarriage Among Servicewomen

this post was paid for by Environmental Litigation Group, P.C
written by Chandler Blythe Duncan

Between 10% and 20% of known pregnancies end in miscarriage, which can result from numerous factors, such as chromosomal problems, hormonal imbalances, uterine abnormalities, chronic health problems, lifestyle factors, but also toxic exposure. This is a grim reality for many women veterans, who experience recurrent miscarriages because of having come in contact with hazardous substances on military bases, including perchloroethylene, arsenic, benzene, lead, formaldehyde, and perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These hazardous agents were present on nearly all military facilities during the last century for decades.

Losing a baby can have devastating effects on these brave women’s psyche and may prevent them from trying to get pregnant in the future out of fear of another miscarriage. As a traumatic event, a miscarriage impacts every woman differently, leading to anxiety, depression, grief, and even PTSD, which some women veterans already struggle with. In fact, 1 in 10 women who had a miscarriage meets the criteria for major depression. Not only can toxic exposure cause miscarriages, but it can also result in birth defects and malformations, which can affect a woman veteran’s desire to become a mother.

How can toxic exposure cause miscarriage, birth defects, and malformations

A study from the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found that perchloroethylene exposure during the first trimester of pregnancy has a significant association with miscarriage and malformations. Out of the 5,700 dry cleaning workers who participated in the research, 247 experienced a miscarriage, and 33 gave birth to a child with malformations. Perchloroethylene is a solvent mostly used in the dry-cleaning industry, but it also ended up in the drinking water of numerous military bases, and products containing it were used by service members to clean equipment and weapons, too.  

Benzene is another industrial solvent associated with low birth weight, a high risk of childhood leukemia, and a higher incidence of birth defects such as spina bifida, according to a study from Environment International. High concentrations of muconic acid, a degradation product of benzene, were detected in the urine of 29 pregnant women exposed to benzene who partook in the study. Their median concentration of muconic acid was 3.5 times over the normal limit. Furthermore, benzene can cross the placenta and affect the fetal liver, leading to health issues in babies from birth.

Arsenic, one of the most toxic heavy metals, can also easily pass the placenta. Several human studies indicate a moderately increased risk of impaired fetal growth and high fetal and infant mortality in women significantly exposed to arsenic. Moreover, in-utero arsenic exposure can result in autism later in life, and so can lead exposure, another highly dangerous heavy metal. Lead exposure increases miscarriage risk, may cause the baby to be born too early or have a low weight, and impact their brain, kidneys, and nervous system. Furthermore, it can result in the child developing learning or behavior problems.

Finally, the Swedish study SELMA, published in Scientific Reports, found a significant association between exposure to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly known as PFAS, and miscarriage in early pregnancy. The women who had double the amount of PFOA, a chemical from this group, in their blood were 50% more likely to experience a miscarriage compared to the other participants. Previously, researchers have determined that PFAS exposure can affect both the pregnant woman and the fetus during early pregnancy, causing preeclampsia and poorer fetal growth.

Nearly 700 military bases nationwide have a legacy of toxic water contamination

Because of the reckless use of the fire suppressant AFFF – whose formula was devised by the U.S. Navy – by firefighters and trainees, the drinking water of nearly all military facilities in the country became contaminated with PFAS. To exacerbate the severity of toxic exposure, other hazardous substances were present in the drinking water of most of these installations, such as industrial solvents and heavy metals. Spending only a few months on a military base is enough to increase servicewomen’s risk of miscarriage, infertility, and having a child with birth defects or malformations. Both organic solvents, PFAS, and heavy metals accumulate in the body with every exposure, which is why the risk does not decrease over time. While organic solvents and heavy metals accumulate in the nervous system, PFAS tend to accumulate in lung, bone, and liver tissue.

Camp Lejeune is one of the most eye-opening and disheartening examples when it comes to toxic exposure from drinking water. Two of the eight water distribution plants at the military base became contaminated with industrial solvents ever since the establishment of Camp Lejeune. At Hadnot Point, the trichloroethylene level exceeded the safe exposure limit by 280 times, whereas the perchloroethylene level eclipsed it by 43 times at Tarawa Terrace. After 1967, when AFFF use was the norm for military firefighters, the PFOS and PFOA level in the drinking water at Camp Lejeune was 179,348 parts per trillion, approximately 2,562 times over the safe exposure limit. Between 1952 and 1987, when toxic exposure was at its peak, one million people lived at the military base, and today, numerous women veterans struggle with the health effects.

Although most military bases currently have clean drinking water, including Camp Lejeune, it is essential to keep a close eye on your health if you were stationed at one while the water was known to contain harmful agents. If you are planning to become a mother, it is also extremely important to inform your doctor about your history of toxic exposure, as it might impact the outcome of your pregnancy. They will know what tests to order for you, what specialists to refer you to, and what advice to give you regarding prenatal care. Nevertheless, if you are a woman veteran who was exposed to hazardous substances while on active duty, you should not lose hope when it comes to conceiving, as not every toxic exposure victim will experience a miscarriage or have a baby with birth defects or malformations.

Coping with the impact of a miscarriage

The risk of a miscarriage after experiencing one is 20%, and it increases significantly if the woman has more than one miscarriage. After three consecutive miscarriages, the risk of another one is 43%, which, understandably, deters some women veterans from trying to become pregnant again out of fear of losing another child. This can take a heavy toll on their mental health, and many women veterans find it difficult to cope with the symptoms that follow a miscarriage caused by toxic exposure. After a miscarriage, between 30% and 50% of women struggle with depression, and up to 15% deal with anxiety, which usually lasts for four months but can last even longer. This can severely impact all aspects of their life, including work, social life, and romantic relationships.

So, what can women veterans do to cope with the psychological symptoms that come after a miscarriage? Perhaps the best way to deal with your sadness and grief is to seek help from a professional, such as a counselor or therapist. They can help you navigate your feelings and teach you effective ways you can cope with these emotions. However, there are many things you can do yourself in addition to what you learn in therapy, such as allowing yourself to grieve your loss. While many people will tell you that you should not feel a sense of loss, your feelings are valid, and you should take time to mourn.

Finally, another thing you and your partner can do together to face your feelings is openly communicate your emotions, which will help you better cope with this heartbreaking event.

About the Author
Chandler Blythe Duncan is a toxic exposure attorney at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. The law firm is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, offering assistance to veterans affected by toxic exposure on military bases. The attorney is a member of the Birmingham Bar Association, the American Bar Association, and the Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program.

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