The List of Military Sites with Suspected ‘Forever Chemicals’ Contamination Has Grown
(November 20, 2019) — The number of places where the U.S. military spilled or suspects it discharged perfluorinated compounds has grown, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, but they did not say where or how many sites are under investigation for possible contamination.
The Department of Defense previously identified 401 sites on active and former military bases where the compounds — perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOS and PFOA — were released or a suspected discharge occurred.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon said Wednesday that continued Department of Defense efforts to identify locations with potentially harmful levels of chemicals uncovered more sites, namely National Guard facilities.
He said the department will name the sites when it has verified the number and locations.
“As part of this process, we think there are probably more installations, and I’m not ready to tell you what that number is, but we found that we under-counted,” McMahon told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon.
The chemicals, which are used in firefighting foams to battle aircraft and ship fires and also found in household items such as non-stick cookware, stain repellents and food wrappers, have been linked to some types of cancer and birth defects.
In July, Defense Secretary Mark Esper created a task force to determine the extent of the contamination and potential health risks to military personnel and families posed by the chemicals, which fall under a family of compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The task force also is charged with finding alternatives to PFAS-free firefighting foams.
The group is expected to release an interim report on its findings this month. Originally, the final report was due by January, but Esper shortened the timeline for completion from 180 days to 120, and now, McMahon said, the goal is to release an interim report that will be an “accurate picture of the multitude of things we are doing.” With McMahon retiring from the Department of Defense on Friday, it’s unknown whether there will be a final report.
“I don’t know what will happen after 120 days, whether the task force continues to go or if it stands down. It’s irrelevant to me because the focus is on doing what’s right for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and their families and the communities. We are going to be just as aggressive,” McMahon said.
The Department of Defense established a new website Tuesday that focuses on its work on PFAS and includes congressional reports and other DoD initiatives addressing the investigation and cleanup.
The move comes the week that a movie about PFAS, “Dark Waters,” premiers. The film tells the story of attorney Robert Bilott’s 20-year fight against DuPont, one of the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals. On Tuesday, the movie’s star, Mark Ruffalo, testified before Congress about the dangers of these chemicals.
They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down, and build up in blood and tissues if absorbed.
“It’s time to regulate PFAS chemicals,” Ruffalo told members of the House Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee. “It’s time to end industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water, it’s time to end needless uses of PFAS in everyday products like food packaging, it’s time to finally filter PFAS out of drinking water and it’s time to clean up legacy PFAS contamination, especially at our military bases.”
Also testifying at the hearing was Mark Favors, a former Army specialist whose extended family lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, near Peterson Air Force Base, and who can count 16 cases of cancer in his family, including 10 deaths, five of which were from kidney cancer.
Peterson is one of the locations where on-base and community water sources tested significantly above the EPA’s recommended PFAS or PFOA exposure limit of 70 parts per trillion.
“Colorado Health Department investigators found that lung, bladder and kidney cancer rates are significantly higher than expected in the same areas of the PFAS water contamination, yet the state has never offered contaminated residents medical monitoring or PFAS blood level tests,” said Favors, who respresented the Fountain Valley (Colorado) Clean Water Coalition.
Dozens of PFAS compounds are used in medical devices, pharmaceuticals and laboratory supplies. As such, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the subcommittee’s ranking member, said, caution should be taken when considering “sweeping action” against an entire class of substances.
“We should be careful of taking actions that have the potential to affect vast swaths of the economy, including hospitals and other [industries] that use lifesaving products made from PFAS compounds,” Comer said during the hearing.
Of the 401 sites named by the Defense Department as having a known or suspected discharge of PFAS, 36 on-base locations had contaminated drinking water and more than 90 had either off-base drinking water or groundwater contamination at levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s accepted threshold.
In cases where the Defense Department found drinking water supplies exceeding the 70 parts per trillion recommendation, the services supplied bottled water and in-home water filtration systems to ensure water quality.
“In some places, we had very marginal levels, so part of this is ‘You don’t have to worry about it.’ But in some places, we have levels that are higher … and we’ve reacted to that,” McMahon said.
Advocacy groups say that no amount of PFAS is safe; the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that has been sounding the alarm on the problem, says that 1 part per trillion is the maximum safe level, based on independent studies.
The EPA has released a draft proposing that the screening level of a contaminated site that would trigger further investigation of PFOS and PFOA should be 40 parts per trillion individually, and for remediation, 70 parts per trillion, combined, in groundwater.
The DoD follows the EPA’s current recommendation of 70 parts per trillion.
McMahon said this week that installation commanders can expect to receive letters instructing them to begin a dialogue, if they have not already done so, with their local communities on the DoD’s PFAS investigation, its findings and any clean up efforts within their communities, according to McMahon.
“One of the things we haven’t done real well is our transparency and activity in getting the message out,” McMahon said. I want our installation commanders to go talk to the community.”
The Environmental Working Group maintains a map as well as lists of the military installations and sites with known PFAS contamination. According to EWG, of the 100 most contaminated sites, 64 had groundwater contamination exceeding 100,000 parts per trillion. The highest known contamination was seen at the former England Air Force Base, near Alexandria, Louisiana, that measured 201.7 million parts per trillion of a PFAS chemical known as PFHxS.
There Are Now Almost 300 Known PFAS-contaminated Military Bases
(September 11, 2019) — As a Pentagon task force looks into unsafe drinking water on its installations, a new list of Army posts has been added to the roster of bases where per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances have been found in ground water as recently as this year.
Ninety active Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard posts are on the list, obtained by the Environmental Working Group by Freedom of Information Act request, the findings of which were posted to the organization’s site late Tuesday night. The Army says that despite the confirmed presence of PFAS in the drinking water, no one is taking in unsafe levels of the chemicals, because their filtered water complies with Environmental Protection Agency guidelines.
Still, the EWG remains concerned.
“These results are alarming, because they show that PFAS contamination of the water provided to our soldiers is nationwide and exposes them to a number of types of PFAS,” EWG senior scientist Dave Andrews said in a release. “Because many PFAS chemicals build up in the body, even very low concentrations in drinking water can increase the risks of serious health problems. What’s more, the lack of regular monitoring suggests that military personnel could have been drinking water with even higher levels of PFAS in the past.”
In their response to the FOIA request, the Army said that it has tested drinking water throughout its installations and made moves to filter it and keep it under the EPA’s prescribed “lifetime healthy advisory” limit, which is 70 parts-per-trillion for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, two types of PFAS.
“There are currently no Army personnel or families drinking water with levels of PFOS/PFOA above the LHA,” Army Department senior counsel Paul DeAgostino wrote.
The new list brings number of documented contaminated bases to 297, 108 of which are Army posts. Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, sits at the top of the the Army’s list, with 10 different types of PFAS totaling 4,022 parts per trillion, according to Army data.
The no. 2 and 3 most-contaminated installations are the Guard’s Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California, and Belmont Armory, Michigan.
Seventy-three on the list are Guard facilities, including armories, readiness centers and training areas. Of the hundreds of bases known to be contaminated, the Defense Department was required by the EPA to test about 70 following a 2012 rule on contamination monitoring.
After the EPA issued more guidance in 2016, including the 70 ppt rule, testing and monitoring expanded, according to the Army’s response to the FOIA request.
Exposure to the chemicals ― found in firefighting foam used not only in vehicle or aircraft incidents on military bases, but in numerous training drills over decades ― has been linked to cancer and other health issues.
Though the Army is following EPA regulations, according to the EWG, their 70 ppt guideline is “70 times higher than the 1 ppt safe level found by some independent studies and endorsed by EWG,” according to the organization’s release. “Some states have set limits ranging from 11 ppt to 20 ppt.”
Further, the EWG argued that the Pentagon’s pledge to filter tap water on bases is not good enough, as the effort doesn’t address the contamination itself.
“The Pentagon has cited EPA’s failure to designate PFAS as ‘hazardous substances’ under the federal Superfund law as one reason for its refusal to clean up PFAS contamination,” according to the release.
Lawmakers are making moves to change that. In July, the both the House and Senate’s versions of the next National Defense Authorization Act included a provision designating PFAS as hazardous, banning the use of fluorinated firefighting foam. The House’s would also ban the use of PFAS in packaging for meals ready-to-eat.
However, according to a July statement from the White House, President Trump planned to veto the NDAA if the PFAS bills stayed as proposed.
“Congress should not wait for President Trump’s EPA to act,” Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said in the release. “The final NDAA must quickly end the Defense Department’s use of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging, and kick-start efforts to clean up legacy PFAS pollution.”
In the meantime, DoD has begun to research alternatives to its current firefighting foam products. According to a September release, the department is taking proposals ― the deadline is Sept. 12 ― with an eye toward funding one in fiscal year 2020.
Is This the Solution to Contaminated Water on Military Bases?
(November 5, 2019) — As a Pentagon task force works to come up with a plan to address cancer-linked chemicals in ground water on its bases, a group of civilian researchers is exploring a high-tech solution.
The Enhanced Contact Plasma Reactor made its debut in September at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, according to a Tuesday release from the Air Force, in a field demonstration of its ability to break down per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance.
“We are trying to destroy or degrade PFAS impacted groundwater using electrical discharge plasma,” principal investigator Selma Mededovic, of Clarkson University, said in the release.
The idea is that argon gas from the reactor concentrates perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOS and PFOA, generating plasma at the surface. The plasma then breaks down the PFAS molecules.
“This is the only technology that actually destroys PFAS molecules that has been demonstrated at this scale, it doesn’t just remove them from water,” co-principal investigator Tom Holsen said in the release. “All of the other demonstrations that we’re aware of remove it from the water through filtration so there is still a PFAS-containing waste. Our method actually destroys PFAS.”
Over the course of two weeks, contracted researchers from Clarkson and GSI Environmental pulled hundreds of gallons of groundwater, running the reactor with different time periods and amounts of water to find the best settings.
Whether the reactor can be scaled across the military remains to be seen, according to the release, as the researchers evaluate the treated water samples.
The chemicals, found in everything from fabric, carpet, cookware and food packaging, are of particular concern on military bases, where they are a key ingredient in the fire-fighting foam used to put out blazes after an aircraft or vehicle incident.
Though the services no longer use the foam in training, where it was most commonly deployed for decades, the compounds do not break down, and so risk building up not only in groundwater, but in the human body.
Filtration systems have brought base contamination levels down to Environmental Protection Agency standards, but organizations like the Environmental Working Group have argued that those levels are still too high.
“PFOS/PFOA is a national issue, and research like this could lead to the breakthroughs we need to address potential contamination,” Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Air Force Secretary for installations, energy and the environment,” said in the release.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper stood up a task force in July to make recommendations on combating the issue. The group meets monthly to discuss its ongoing research, with a January deadline for submitting final findings.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.
Check this map to see if your base is among the military locations where contamination has been found
(May 6, 2019) — The Pentagon is on board with a new proposal from the Environmental Protection Agency aimed at clarifying state and federal cleanup standards to address groundwater and drinking water contaminated by decades of seepage of chemicals — including those used in the military’s firefighting foams.
For decades, the military used firefighting foams that contained PFAS chemicals. These per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are also found in everyday household products. PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancers and other health problems.
Meanwhile, today, an advocacy group that says even those standards are “woefully inadequate” released its updated, interactive map showing PFAS contamination at 610 sites in 43 states. Of those on the Environmental Working Group’s list, 117 are military sites, including 77 military airports. Service members and families can click on military locations to find the levels of contamination, based on EWG’s research on DoD and other data.
The EPA’s proposal doesn’t lower the cleanup standards — the Pentagon had reportedly sought to weaken the standards, according to press reports. This proposal aligns with the EPA’s 2016 health advisory that recommended water sources contain no more than 70 parts per trillion of the PFAS chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and/or perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS at sites being addressed, including those under federal cleanup programs. The PFOA and PFOS are the two most well-known of the hundreds of PFAS chemicals currently in use. The proposal also would set a rate of 40 ppt as the level where no adverse effects are expected.
While the EPA’s health advisory has been in effect since 2016, neither the Pentagon or any municipality was required to meet the 70 ppt standard.
DoD, NASA and the Small Business Administration had reportedly pushed for increasing the standard to 380 ppt for a clean up standard, which would have allowed higher exposure to the compounds in water sources, according to Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., in a March letter to the EPA. “Such levels would, among other consequences, subject fewer sites that were contaminated through the military’s use of PFOA/PFOS from having to be remediated in the first place,” Carper said.
“DoD fully supports the trigger level for investigation and initial cleanup goal contained in EPA’s draft interim recommendations,” said DoD spokeswoman Heather Babb. “EPA’s draft provides helpful guidance for a consistent approach to PFOA and/or PFOS groundwater cleanups.”
DoD has been using 40 ppt in groundwater as the level to begin a detailed investigation of sites with the PFOS and/or PFOA contamination, Babb said. In addition, DoD “has been using and will continue to use the 70 ppt as the preliminary remediation goal” – the initial target for a cleanup level. That can be adjusted, based on the site, as more information becomes available, she said.
She said DoD has been using the “long-established Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act” process in its cleanups, “The science-based process applies to everyone and every chemical and it indicates 390 ppt as the level that requires the initiation of the cleanup process,” she said.
In testimony May 1 before the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said, “we’ve agreed with the EPA on a common standard, and it was their standard.”
He said there were discussions on the processes that will be used to implement the EPA’s standard. Noting that the EPA’s recommended guidelines are out for public comment, he told lawmakers, “I think in working with you and others, do we have the right standard is really now the question for us.”
The Environmental Working Group contends those proposed EPA standards “are a woefully inadequate response to the growing nationwide crisis of drinking water contaminated with PFAS,” said EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews in a press release.
EWG says ”studies by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control, scientists for a number of states, and private researchers have found those levels are far too high to protect public health.” Some states have proposed standards at or near 20 ppt, EWG noted.
The EPA proposal also falls short because it doesn’t declare PFAS chemicals to be hazardous substances under the Superfund cleanup law, and doesn’t legally require the Pentagon or the chemical industry to clean up contaminated military facilities, industrial sites or dumps, according to the EWG.
Virtually every American has some of these chemicals in their bodies, said Bill Walker, editor in chief at Environmental Working Group. These chemicals come from a variety of sources, including waterproof clothing, and food.
As military families check out the EWG interactive map for possible contamination at their current location, the best remedy is to prevent future exposure to the chemicals, said Alexis Temkin, toxicologist at EWG. There are a number of different options for water filtration, for example, and the type used depends on the chemical. EWG’s consumer guides have some information.
“But it’s not right that the burden has to be on the individual resident, the individual citizen to protect his or her health or his family’s health. This should be something that the government is protecting us from,” said Walker. “It’s much easier and economic to keep chemicals out of the water supply in the first place, than to filter them out when they get in there. Obviously PFAS chemicals have been in use for decades. We can’t change history, but we need to learn from this situation, that the key is to keep chemicals from getting into the water.”
Shanahan said during his testimony that “no one is drinking contaminated water” at the sites in question identified by DoD. The military no longer uses the PFAS chemicals in training or in testing, he said. “The only use of them is in the event of a fire.
“The real work here is on remediation.”
Karen Jowers has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book “A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families.” She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.
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