PFAS Contamination at Military Sites Reveals a Need for Urgent Science-based Protections

September 25, 2018 | 12:08 pm
US Air Force
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

A new UCS factsheet released today looks at PFAS contamination at military bases, revealing that many of the sites have levels of these chemicals in their drinking or groundwater at potentially unsafe levels. PFAS, or poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances, have been used in everything from Teflon pans, to nonstick food packaging, to water-repellent raingear for decades. Only recently has it been revealed to the general public that these compounds are seeping into our waterways and causing health issues in people who are exposed to the chemical at elevated levels over time.

The contamination of drinking water and groundwater at military bases continues to be a problem because the firefighting foam used in training exercises and in operations contains PFAS. Living with this additional risk is an unacceptable extra burden that these men and women and their families should not have to bear. This is not just a story about a chemical that is largely unregulated, it is a story about the people who are dealing with the ramifications of its widespread contamination every single day.

What we found

A draft toxicology report released by ATSDR after emails obtained by UCS revealed that the White House had been suppressing the study suggested that risk levels for PFAS were 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA’s current standards.

The report’s findings, suggesting that PFAS are potentially more hazardous than previously known, are particularly concerning because of these compounds’ persistence in the environment and widespread prevalence.

UCS mapped PFAS contamination of groundwater and drinking water at 131 active and formerly active US military sites across 37 states. We translated the ATSDR’s risk levels for PFOA and PFOS into comparable drinking water standards in parts per trillion using EPA’s own methods and found all these sites but one exceeded the more conservative of those levels.

  • At 87 of the sites—roughly two-thirds—PFAS concentrations were at least 100 times higher than the ATSDR risk level.
  • At 118 of the sites—more than 90 percent—PFAS concentrations were at least 10 times higher than the ATSDR risk level.
  • Over half of the 32 sites with direct drinking water contamination had PFAS concentrations that were at least 10 times higher than the ATSDR risk level.

Urgent action needed

In the ATSDR’s scientific review of 14 PFAS, the association between exposure and negative health effects is clear. While there is absolutely need for more research into some of these associations and a lot more data to fill the gaps on the thousands of PFAS compounds that have not yet been looked at, there is a compelling case to be made for EPA to act urgently on the class of chemicals and there are no shortage of ways to do so, both by enacting enforceable standards and providing support to the states that have taken the lead on this issue.

Responding to high rates of contamination, communities have been on the frontline of getting action in their states. More and more states are setting standards for PFAS in drinking water and groundwater more stringent that the EPA’s health advisory, and places like Washington have banned the use of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging. And communities and organized and poised to get the changes they want.

Congress has also been hearing from their constituents and taking action. There have been an encouraging flurry of bills introduced in both the House and Senate over the past year. An amendment to the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act secured by New Hampshire’s Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has enabled $20 million funding for ATSDR to conduct a nationwide health study on PFAS. Other measures are still pending. The House recently passed an amendment to the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that would allow commercial aircraft manufacturers and commercial US airports to use non-fluorinated chemicals in firefighting foam starting in 2 years. The PFAS Registry Act (S. 2719, H.R. 5921) would direct the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to establish a registry to ensure that veterans possibly exposed to PFAS via firefighting foam on military installations get information about exposure and treatment. The PFAS Accountability Act (S. 3381) in the Senate and the PFAS Federal Facility Accountability Act in the House would encourage federal agencies to establish cooperative agreements with states on removal/remedial actions to address PFAS contamination from federal facilities including military installations. The PFAS Detection Act (S. 3382) would require USGS to develop a standard to detect and test for PFAS in water and soil near releases, to determine human exposure, and report data to federal/state agencies & relevant elected officials.

Tomorrow, a Senate Homeland Security & Government Affairs subcommittee is holding a hearing on the “federal role in the toxic PFAS chemical crisis” at which EPA and DOD representatives will be testifying. It is critical that these agencies provide members of the public with clear answers on how they will be doing their jobs to protect all of us from further PFAS contamination. Take action with us to hold these agencies accountable today.