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

November 1, 2018 | 9:00 am
Ken Wright/Air Force
Charise Johnson
Former Contributor

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.