PFAS Contamination on Military Bases Is A Scary Reality—And For Me, It’s Personal

, researcher, Center for Science & Democracy | November 1, 2018, 9:00 am EDT
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Across the country, families are exposed to dangerous chemicals in their water—and the families most at risk are those living on or near military bases. This threat concerns me not just as a researcher, but as the child of a military family.

PFAS, or poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, are a class of synthetic chemicals that are silently ubiquitous and persistent in the environment—and highly toxic. Their ability to repel oil and water and persist at high temperatures makes them attractive for use in everyday items like nonstick cookware and food packaging, in water-repellent gear, and in firefighting foam used primarily by the US military.

UCS recently released a factsheet that investigated PFAS contamination at US military bases, and the results were unsettling. A new report from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says that the threshold for danger from PFAS starts much lower than previously suspected—and that sites across the country are at risk. According to ASTDR, PFAS exposure studies have indicated certain PFAS may have negative health effects: developmental issues in infants and children, increased cancer risk, high cholesterol levels, hormone disruption, lowered immunity.


Unfortunately, this does not come as a surprise to me. Last November, I wrote about how appointing chemical industry apologist Michael Dourson to head the EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention would be terrible for the public, particularly for military families, due to his conclusions that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), a type of PFAS and a widespread drinking water contaminant on military bases, should have an even weaker safety standard than that already recommended by the EPA. Luckily, he withdrew his nomination, a victory both for science and public health. However, Dourson’s withdrawal was one small victory in the fight to stop toxic contamination at military bases, a fight that began years ago. Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), UCS obtained email correspondence between the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Department of Defense (DoD). These emails suggested that the administration was interfering with the release of the ATSDR report on PFAS. An unnamed intergovernmental affairs aide at the White House said, “the impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful.”

The impact will be painful, it’s true—but for whom?

Me at age 12, when we were stationed in Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. My dad had me on Jeep detail.

Respecting the military

Every politician brags about their support for the troops, and trust in the military is high among the public. But what does that mean in practice?

For a long time, military personnel and their families have been exposed to heightened chemical risk. But this administration has added insult to injury and taken us further from solving the problem. Intentionally stopping a study from being published because it would be a “public relations nightmare” could be, instead, a nightmare for those affected.

As of August 2017, DoD identified 401 active and BRAC installations in the United States with at least one area where there is a known or suspected release of PFOS/PFOA.

In all, 25 Army bases; 50 Air Force bases, 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites have tested at higher than acceptable levels for the compounds in either their drinking water or groundwater sources. Additionally, DoD tested 2,668 groundwater wells both on and in the surrounding off-base community and found that 61 percent of them tested above the EPA’s recommended levels.

Military communities deserve our support—but they’ve gotten insufficient attention in the conversation about water pollution, despite their elevated risk. Fortunately, the administration’s attempt to bury the PFAS report has backfired, drawing more attention to the issue.

This issue isn’t just scientific to me—it’s personal.

I think of my father, getting stationed in Korea at age 19, a stone’s throw from the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ) – a place former President Bill Clinton called “the scariest place on earth.” When I asked my dad about it, he said only three words – “it was scary.” These are the realities many active members of our armed forces face, whether in training on US soil or deployed abroad. And while people join the service for many different reasons, I am positive none of those include “I would like to unwittingly bear the brunt of toxic chemical exposure.”

I think of my grandfather. My uncle. My aunts. My cousin. All served in the military, putting themselves and their families at risk.

If we’re not listening to science and basing our decisions on the best available information, public health and safety can be compromised and the public’s ability to engage meaningfully suffers.

Members of the military and their families deserve better than having the risks they face concealed.

We can do better. Our leaders need to act on the information they have about the dangers of PFAS. Ask your elected officials to push EPA and DoD to do more to protect their constituents from toxic contamination.



Charise Johnson

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  • Tim Roberts

    I am definitely NOT a scientist. Thus, my only question is concerning the chart below “A Toxic Threat:…” The chart’s definition of “Significant Contamination” is “1 to 100x the safe limit.” Since 1 x any number is that number itself, can it not be said that the chart indicates–at least theoretically–that some other site(s) which were “within safe level” could be placed into the “significant contamination” category? Would “>1 to 100 x safe limit” be a clearer way to define the “significant contamination” category? Thank you for an important article concerning the safety of all persons living near a toxic site!

  • Michael Dourson

    Dear Ms. Johnson

    As I stated to US Senators in response the extensive mischaracterization of my role in the West Virginia PFOA contamination:

    “The science of PFOA has progressed since 2002. In light of new data, TERA would work with EPA offices to incorporate new information so that public health is protected.”*

    So yes, TERA would be quite willing to assist in bringing forward the best science for the estimation of a safe PFOA dose. For example, ATSDR has a draft value under public review and we gave them self-sponsored comments (see:, TERA’s comment is #43). These comments were similar in part to those made by EPA scientists to ATSDR last fall (when I was working at EPA) even though EPA’s advisory also has difficulties (e.g., oops… not following our own guidelines). These differences in the EPA and ATSDR positions would not be so bad if other health organizations did not have dramatically different safe doses. They do. We will see how this all sorts out in the next year or so. Several workshops are underway to explore these issues.


    Michael Dourson


    *All of my responses to US Senators regarding this mischaracterization of my work as part of TERA is publicly available. See:

  • Michael Dourson

    Dear Ms. Johnson

    I appreciate the passion with which the UCS brings to it opinions and its interest in science for a healthy planet and safer world. Many groups have similarly related missions. Progress towards these missions is hampered, however, by misinformation. For example, UCS states that my “conclusions that PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid), a type of PFAS and a widespread drinking water contaminant on military bases, should have an even weaker safety standard than that already recommended by the EPA.” This statement is incorrect. This was not my conclusion. It was the conclusion of a 10-scientist panel chaired by Dr. Deanne Statts of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection in 2002. Three of the other panelists were from EPA, 1 from ATSDR, 3 from TERA (including me); 1 from Dupont, and 1 was a consultant. This standard was based on the best available science at the time (see: FINAL CATT REPORT WITH ATTACHMENTS, AUGUST 2002).

    EPA’s more recent value in 2016 is much lower, even accounting for the fact that a different equation was used in its determination (EPA’s new value using the 2002 equation would have yielded a safe dose of around 0.4 ppb, still much lower than the 150 ppb in 2002). Yet, it is not appropriate to compare these two values, both endorsed by EPA scientists, since the science has improved since 2002.

    Several folks have asked me how TERA got involved in the 2002 PFOA work. It turns out that “All the non-TERA toxicologists on the CATT, whether from government agencies or industry, were in unanimous support of including TERA in this project” (CATT, 2002, page 9). This was perhaps not surprising since TERA had a history of collaboration, even though TERA’s work is primarily for government (see: TERA was then hired by the State of West Virginia to assist. All of this information has been publicly available.

    UCS can do better than to parrot others’ misinformation. Imagine the progress we could all make towards our respective missions, if we agreed with Einstein:

    The right to search for the truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.


    Michael L. Dourson, Ph.D., DABT, FATS, FSRA
    Director of Science

    Toxicology Excellence For Risk Assessment1250 Ohio Pike, Suite #197
    Cincinnati, Ohio 45102-1239
    Email [email protected]
    Phone 513.542.7475 Ext: 105
    Fax 513.488.1990
    Alt Phone 513.543.2892

    Independent • Non-Profit • Science

    A 501c3 environmental science NGO

    • Charise Johnson

      Dr. Dourson,

      Thank you for the kind words about UCS. We strive to provide the public with evidence based on robust, independent science — not misinformation. With that said, we are glad to see that the science has evolved and hope you’ll work with the public health science community to advocate for stronger standards as we continue to learn more about links between PFAS and health effects at lower concentrations.


      Charise Johnson
      Research Analyst, The Center for Science and Democracy
      Union of Concerned Scientists | 1825 K Street NW, Suite 800 | Washington, DC 20006