When the “forever chemical” per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are discussed, the huge military component of this toxic poisoning of our ecosystems is rarely mentioned. We must deal with all PFAS contamination because it is ending up in our drinking water supply, food, and bodies. Vermont must do more about PFAS and do it now.
According to the Environmental Work Group, the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS are confirmed or suspected at 678 military sites, including seven here in Vermont. Pentagon officials have understood the risks of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) — firefighting foam — since 1970, when military studies showed it was toxic to fish. In 2001, the Department of Defense concluded that the PFAS in AFFF was “persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic.” The DOD waited until 2011 to warn service members about PFAS risks.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 legislates a phase out of AFFF by October 2024. However, the provision only applies to military facilities on property owned by the federal government; it does not apply to civilian facilities. Vermont must pass its own laws on AFFF use at civilian facilities. That’s why Senate Bill 20, passed by the Vermont Senate and being considered by the House, needs to be strengthened and enacted this session.
The Vermont Military Poisons Coalition is proposing this language around firefighting foam: “Not later than six months after the date of enactment, the secretaries of the Agency of Natural Resources and Transportation shall require the use of fluorine-free firefighting foams by any party within Vermont, and not later than one year after the date of enactment, the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources shall ban, after notice, the use of all PFAS-based firefighting foams within Vermont by all private, local, state, and or federal entities to include the DOD and DHS and their agents.”
PFAS chemicals are a class of 5,000 different man-made, fluorinated chemicals; Vermont has only regulated five, the two most studied: PFOS and PFOA. Starting in 1970, PFAS were in eight carbon-based (C8) AFFF, which was used by the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard to extinguish petroleum fires. C8 is known as long-chain PFAS and contains both PFOA and PFOS, which are persistent, bio-accumulative, and toxic. C8 at Vermont Air National Guard has been replaced with short-chain, six-carbon (C6) AFFF. According to the military, C6 is currently considered an environmentally safer alternative.
Make no mistake about this change from C8 to C6: C6 is still PFAS. The C6 foam contains PFAS based on slightly shorter carbon chains — six, as opposed to eight atoms. Regardless of the numbers of atoms, it is still toxic. VTANG has not stopped using PFAS, they are just not using PFOA and PFOS in the foam. FDA studies published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology and Food and Chemical Toxicology journals looked at short chain PFAS compounds and found that the human health risks of these short-chain PFAS have been significantly underestimated; C6 is still a toxin. C6 and C8 firefighting foam from the base/airport are in our groundwater and are adding to all the other forms of PFAS coming from industrial sites, landfills, and sewage/wastewater treatment plants and overflows.
There are fluorine-free alternatives that are being successfully used around the world. Fluorine-free foams are employed by the Danish and Norwegian armed forces. All major Australian airports have switched to fluorine-free foams, as have many major international airports: Heathrow, Gatwick, Charles De Gaulle, Dubai, etc. Fluorine-free foams are used by oil/chemical manufacturers: BP, ExxonMobil, Pfizer, Lilly, etc. We must switch to fluorine-free alternatives in the U.S. and in Vermont. The bottom line is that the cost to clean up PFAS (often at taxpayer’s expense) is far greater than the cost to use safer alternatives.
As people learn about PFAS contaminated fish and wildlife, will Vermont still be a place that people want to visit and to move to? We can and must do more to protect ourselves, children, and grandchildren. While our military needs to defend us from threats, it also needs to defend our health and our environment. We must demand that they do so.
Marguerite Adelman is with the Vermont Military Poisons Coalition, based in Winooski. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.