Written by The Environmental Working Group
The United States Department of Defense recently released new data showing that more than 600 military sites and surrounding communities could be contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals, or PFAS – far more installations than have been previously disclosed by Pentagon officials.
Details about the new facilities likely contaminated with PFAS leaked last week, a day after a House appropriations subcommittee hearing during which members heard heart-wrenching testimony from retired Army pilot Jim Holmes, who believes his 17-year-old daughter’s death from brain cancer could have been caused by exposure to PFAS-contaminated water on the base where he was stationed.
Holmes was joined at the hearing by EWG’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Scott Faber, who urged Congress and the Pentagon to accelerate efforts to clean up legacy PFAS pollution at military installations around the country.
Previously, DOD testified that 401 of its installations could be contaminated with PFAS, which have been linked to cancer, liver damage and harm to the reproductive and immune systems.
The updated list of installations identified by DOD can be found here.
The DOD’s use of firefighting foam made with PFAS, also known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, is the primary source of PFAS pollution at military installations.
(Note: Several of the installations where PFAS contamination is suspected include more than one military operation on the site, which is why some reports list the number of facilities at 651. When those locations with duplicate installations are considered, the actual number is just over 600 bases.)
EWG has so far confirmed PFAS in the tap water or groundwater at 328 military sites. Until recently, PFAS contaminated the drinking water of dozens of bases, and many communities near these installations continue to drink contaminated water.
Through Freedom of Information Act requests, EWG also discovered that many of the highest PFAS detections in the nation have been found on or near DOD installations.
In particular, within DOD documents, EWG found evidence of PFAS detections in groundwater at 14 installations that were above 1 million parts per trillion, or ppt, far above the 70 ppt drinking water advisory level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.
“DOD has failed to treat PFAS pollution with the urgency service members and their families rightly deserve,” said EWG’s Scott Faber. “We’ve all known for decades that PFAS are toxic, but DOD is still trying to understand the scope of the problem.”
DOD officials have understood the risks of AFFF since the early 1970s, when Navy and Air Force studies first showed the firefighting foam was toxic to fish; since the early 1980s, when the Air Force conducted its own animal studies on AFFF; and since the early 2000s, when the maker of PFOS, the main ingredient in AFFF, exited the market. In 2001, a DOD memo concluded that the main ingredient in AFFF was “persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic.”
“DOD waited a decade to warn service members and has been slow to switch to PFAS-free alternatives to AFFF or clean up legacy PFAS pollution,” Faber said. “What’s more, some DOD officials have argued for cleanup and screening levels that are less protective of our service members and their families than those proposed by EPA.”
The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 included important bipartisan PFAS reforms, including a provision to phase out AFFF by 2024. But the NDAA fell short of what’s needed to address the serious public health risks posed by PFAS, especially PFOA and PFOS.
“In light of these new revelations, Congress should do much more to accelerate the cleanup of legacy PFAS contamination,” said Faber. “To do so, Congress should increase funding for programs like the Defense Environmental Restoration Program and designate PFAS as hazardous substances under EPA’s Superfund program, which will ensure that PFAS manufacturers pay their fair share of cleanup costs.”
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.