The toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS contaminate the blood of virtually every American. These chemicals have been linked to serious health problems, including cancer, harm to the reproductive system, and harm to the immune system.
Americans are exposed to dozens of PFAS every day. Because PFAS never break down and build up in our blood and organs, they are often known as “forever chemicals.”
Military service members and their families are especially at risk. The DOD’s 50-year use of fire-fighting foam made with PFAS, also known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), has disproportionately exposed them to PFAS pollution.
The DOD has so far confirmed PFAS in the tap water or groundwater at 328 military installations, and the DOD suspects that hundreds of additional installations are likely to be contaminated. Until recently, PFAS contaminated the drinking water of dozens of military bases, and many communities near these installations continue to drink contaminated water.
Many of the highest PFAS detections in the nation have been found on or near the DOD installations. In particular, reported PFAS levels surpassed 1 million parts per trillion (ppt) at 14 installations, far above the 70 ppt level recommended by the EPA. Tests taken at one base in Louisiana exceeded 20 million ppt.
While PFOA and PFOS, the most well-known PFAS, are commonly found at the DOD installations, other PFAS associated with AFFF also contaminate groundwater on and near military installations, including PFHxS and PFBS. Like PFOA and PFOS, these chemicals have also been linked to serious health problems.
The DOD worked with 3M to develop PFAS-based AFFF in the 1960s, and some DOD officials were alerted to the risks of AFFF in the early 1970s, when Navy and Air Force studies first showed AFFF was toxic to fish. In the early 1980s, the Air Force conducted additional animal studies on AFFF that found toxic effects.
By 2000, when the maker of PFOS, the main ingredient in AFFF at that time, exited the market, the risks of AFFF were well understood. In 2001, a DOD memo concluded that PFOS in AFFF was “persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic.”
But the DOD waited another decade to warn servicemembers about the risks posed by AFFF. And, despite the risks, the DOD has been slow to switch to PFAS-free AFFF alternatives and has been slow to clean up legacy PFAS pollution. One official recently testified it could take 30 years to clean up legacy PFAS pollution. What’s more, some DOD officials have argued for cleanup and screening levels that are less protective of our servicemembers and their families than those proposed by EPA.
Congress Needs to Do More
The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 included important bipartisan reforms, including provisions to phase out most military uses of fluorinated foams by 2024, ban the use of PFAS in some military food packaging, allow clean-up funds to be used at National Guard bases, and to consider state clean-up standards. The bill also expanded PFAS reporting and monitoring requirements.
But, the last NDAA fell short of what’s needed to address the serious public health risks posed by PFAS to our servicemembers. In particular, Congress should do more to accelerate the cleanup of legacy PFAS contamination as installations and reduce ongoing PFAS exposures.
To do so, Congress should increase funding for clean-up programs and designate PFAS as hazardous substances, which will ensure that PFAS manufacturers pay their fair share of cleanup costs. Congress should set a deadline by which the DOD determines which bases are contaminated.
Because service members are disproportionately exposed to PFAS, Congress should build upon the progress made in last year’s defense authorization bill by prohibiting other non-essential uses of PFAS. The DOD should also prohibit the incineration of legacy AFFF until incineration can be done safely.
And, Congress should direct the DOD to expand blood testing to other active and retired service members, veterans, and their families, and should direct the DOD to share what they know about exposure to PFAS and the health risks service members may face.
Service members and their families risk everything to keep us safe. We must do everything we can to protect them from toxic chemicals like PFAS. It’s been nearly 50 years since the DOD officials first suspected that PFAS was toxic and nearly 20 years since the DOD confirmed that PFAS was not only toxic but building up in our blood. It should not take another 30 years for DOD to clean up legacy PFAS pollution.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Rebecca Patterson is deputy director of the Veterans Health Council at Vietnam Veterans of America, a High Ground Veterans Advocacy fellow, and a US Navy veteran.
Scott Faber is the senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, which tracks PFAS contamination on military installations.