Defense Department delayed PFAS cleanup, ignored health risks, Inspector General says

WASHINGTON – The Defense Department responded too slowly to the threats posed to military service members by the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and is failing to track the health risks facing military firefighters, according to DOD’s inspector general.

The IG also found that DOD has failed to take an “enterprise wide” approach to PFAS that reduces all needless exposures to the chemicals.

“This report should alarm our service members and their families,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “DOD understood the health risks posed by toxic PFAS for decades but failed to act to protect service members.

“Now DOD is letting down our service members again by failing to address all sources of PFAS and by failing to make sure our military firefighters get the care they need,” he added.

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PFAS have been confirmed at more than 300 military installations, and hundreds more may be contaminated.

“This Inspector General’s report confirms that the Defense Department must urgently do more to protect service members and their families from PFAS chemicals," said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Congressional PFAS Task Force.

"Due to the Defense Department’s use of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, many service members, military firefighters and their families are still at risk of exposure. Supporting our brave men and women in uniform means transitioning more quickly away from using PFAS chemicals and ensuring service members have access to quality health care," Kildee added.

The DOD, which helped create firefighting foam made with PFAS, understood the risks posed by the chemicals since the 1970s. They are a large group of chemicals that cause increased risk of cancer, harm to fetal development and reduced vaccine effectiveness. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and they build up in our blood and organs.

But the DOD first alerted service members about the risks in 2011 and waited another five years to take action, in violation of DOD policies, according to the IG.

“As a result, people and the environment may have been exposed to preventable risks,” from firefighting foam made with the PFAS, the report said.

Once DOD began to address firefighting foam, the agency ignored other ways service members might be exposed to PFAS, also in violation of its own policies.

The IG also faulted the DOD for failing to track and analyze firefighter blood testing to assess potential long-term health effects. Congress directed DOD to perform PFAS blood tests in the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020.

“Military firefighters are likely to be at greater risk of certain cancers because of high levels of PFAS in their blood,” Faber said.

It’s long past time for the Defense Department to stop using dangerous PFAS chemicals,” added Rep. Kildee. As co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional PFAS Task Force, I will continue to work with Republicans and Democrats to protect America’s service members and clean up PFAS chemicals.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee last week added language to the defense spending bill that would set deadlines for PFAS testing and reporting. But it did not include a provision that would address PFAS exposures from household products. The House Armed Services Committee starts work on its version of the bill this week.

“We need to give the DOD clear marching orders,” Faber said. “DOD must reduce all needless exposures to these toxic chemicals.”

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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.

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