Why Military Women Are at Greater Risk of Breast Cancer

Toxic exposure affects everyone—but the military’s male-oriented focus tends to overlook how it impacts servicewomen in particular.

Chelsey Simoni and her husband Kyle Simoni on Nov. 9, 2021 in North Attleborough, Mass. Chelsey founded an organization (hunterseven.org) that helps veterans facing health issues as a result of burn pits and exposure to toxic chemicals. (David Degner / The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Over the past century, the U.S. military’s negligent storage and disposal of hazardous substances in and around its bases has inadvertently placed countless service members in harm’s way. Stemming from the insufficient knowledge regarding the long-term risk of such practices, millions of troops and their families stationed on contaminated military installations were exposed to a deadly combination of toxins responsible for triggering fatal illnesses. 

North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune is perhaps the most notorious example of widespread contamination affecting U.S. army bases, with toxic issues going back to the early ’50s. Though the base’s infamous legacy has spurred on legislative decisions that have recently improved veterans’ access to medical benefits through the V.A., women-specific diseases, such as breast cancer, are not afforded a service-related presumption—despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Although toxic exposure affects individuals indiscriminately, the army’s traditionally male-oriented focus has tended to overlook how it impacts servicewomen, their specific health concerns and the difficulties they encounter in accessing their rightful benefits. 

Camp Lejeune’s Extensive Contaminant Problems

Built during America’s entry in WWII, Camp Lejeune has served as one of the most important Marine Corps bases on the U.S. East Coast. For over three decades (1953-1987), close to 1 million troops and their families living on its grounds were unintentionally exposed to volatile organic compounds found in the oil, degreasers, solvents, radioactive waste and even off-site industrial chemicals. 

Analysis of Camp Lejeune’s premises has uncovered more than 60 contaminants in concentrations surpassing safety levels by 240–3,400 times, including known carcinogens such as benzene, vinyl chloride, perchloroethylene (PCE), dichloroethylene (DCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE). Per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as “forever chemicals,” registered concentrations as high as 179,348ppt (parts per trillion)—far exceeding the EPA’s 70ppt standard established in 2016.

Prolonged exposure to such potent toxins has been clinically associated with debilitating and life-threatening conditions, from multiple cancers, sclerosis and neurobehavioral effects, to miscarriage, congenital disabilities and a host of reproductive issues.  

Due to the base’s extensive contamination, the EPA designated Camp Lejeune as a Superfund site in 1989. Despite continuous clean-up projects and regular reviews still uncovering traces of toxins, Camp Lejeune remains operational even to this day. And it’s just one of over 700 contaminated military bases strewn across the U.S. 

Military Women With Breast Cancer Due PFAs Exposure Overlooked by Law

The decades of exposure to severe health hazards have taken their toll not only on Camp Lejeune’s veterans but also their spouses and children. To address their urgent healthcare needs, Congress passed legislation in 2012 that would facilitate their access to improved medical benefits. Five years later, Congress and the V.A. established eight illnesses connected to the base’s contamination that would be afforded a service-presumption status. 

Even though the V.A. recognizes certain cancers (leukemia, kidney, liver) as presumptive conditions, breast cancer isn’t one of them. This obvious omission is perplexing given that Camp Lejeune’s contaminants include carcinogens and compounds known to disrupt women-specific biological processes. Among many other toxins, women living or serving at the base have been exposed to high concentrations of PFAS, a class of toxic compounds that bioaccumulate due to their strong chemical bonds preventing natural breakdown. 

A 2022 meta-analysis of available studies designates PFAS as a potential breast cancer risk, and other research notes PFAS’ potential to stimulate breast cancer’s migration and invasion. A host of international studies over the past decade in geographically-disparate locations like Denmark, Greenland, China and Taiwan all indicate PFAS as a breast cancer risk for women.

Multiple studies show PFAS’ potential to cause hormonal disruptions, alter female development during puberty and decrease breastfeeding periods, which can increase the likelihood of developing breast cancer.        

One million troops and their families living on Camp Lejeune’s grounds were unintentionally exposed to volatile organic compounds found in the oil, degreasers, solvents, radioactive waste and even off-site industrial chemicals. 

Biden’s ‘Honoring Our PACT Act’ Is a Victorious Milestone for Military Women and Men

At present, close to 230,000 women actively serve as officers and enlisted personnel in the U.S. military’s various branches, representing the army’s highest-growing demographic. Despite their increasing numbers, women veterans’ visibility in society and the awareness surrounding their specific issues remain relatively low. 

Close to 2 million currently hold the veteran title, making up 10 percent of the veteran population. Even so, only one out of 69 American women (1.5 percent) are veterans, while one out of seven adult American males (14 percent) hold the same distinction.

This decreased public perception, coupled with the fact that many veterans are not aware of the resources that the V.A. put at their disposal, means that the potential for women veterans to be misdiagnosed is very high—mainly because many physicians in non-military facilities omit to ask women patients if they previously served in the armed forces, which would allow them to consider a very significant environmental risk factor that can radically change a diagnosis. 

In August, Congress passed the Honoring Our PACT Act to facilitate veterans’ access to improved benefits through the V.A. for service-connected toxic exposure. However, even though the bill recognizes 23 new diseases as presumptive conditions, breast cancer still isn’t one of them. This is especially concerning since breast cancer is the leading diagnosis (30 percent) for women treated for invasive cancers by the V.A.

Increasing awareness regarding women veterans is vital towards ensuring they’re provided the same consideration and care as their male counterparts. Physicians and healthcare providers could offer better diagnoses earlier if they were to account for women’s prior military service and the risks it could involve.

With the EPA recently updating its health advisory standards for PFAS from 70ppt to as low as 0.004 – 0.02ppt, the V.A. should take heed of the agency’s recommendations and the plethora of studies designating PFAS as a breast cancer risk and reconsider its stance on the condition’s service-related status. 

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Jonathan Sharp presently serves as CFO at Environmental Litigation Group PC. The law firm based in Birmingham, Ala., specializes in toxic exposure litigation and helps individuals affected by toxins on contaminated U.S. military bases.