WASHINGTON – Drinking water supplies at an additional 90 current and former Army and Army National Guard installations nationwide are contaminated with the toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, according to newly released Department of Defense data obtained by EWG under the Freedom of Information Act.
The new data show PFAS contamination detected in tests of drinking water from 2016 to this year. They raise the number of Army installations with known PFAS contamination of drinking water or groundwater from 18 to 108, and the total number of military installations with known contamination from 207 to 297.
Out of the 90 additional sites, the worst contamination was detected at the Joint Forces Training Base, in California, where the combined level of seven different PFAS chemicals was an extraordinary 790 parts per trillion, or ppt, in tests conducted in 2017. Other locations with notably high levels of total PFAS include the Sierra Army Depot, in California; Picatinny Arsenal, in New Jersey; Camp Ethan Allen, in Vermont; and Ford Drum, in New York. (See the complete list.)
Low doses of PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, harm to the reproductive and immune systems, thyroid disease and other health problems. The chemicals have been detected in the drinking water of 19 million Americans in 49 states, and unreleased EPA data show that up to 110 million people may have PFAS-contaminated drinking water.
In its response to EWG’s FOIA, the Army said it has “mitigated” the levels of the two most notorious PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFAS, by installing filtration systems or changing water sources in all locations where drinking water contamination from one or both chemicals exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory, or LHA, of 70 ppt.
“There are currently no Army personnel or families drinking water with levels of PFOS/PFOA above the LHA,” the Army said.
But the EPA’s advisory level is 70 times higher than the 1 ppt safe level found by some independent studies and endorsed by EWG. Some states have set limits ranging from 11 ppt to 20 ppt.
In addition, the EPA advisory covers those two chemicals only, not the many different PFAS chemicals detected at the installations. Studies show that some of those other chemicals may be even more hazardous to human health than PFOS and PFOA, and there is growing scientific consensus that the entire class of PFAS chemicals is hazardous.
“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,” said EWG Senior Scientist Dave Andrews, Ph.D. “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.”
Firefighting foams made with PFAS and long used on military installations are a major source of PFAS contamination. The Pentagon has pledged to filter the tap water provided on military installations but has fought efforts to clean up legacy contamination that has polluted nearby communities. 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.
“The military helped create PFAS-based firefighting foams and has understood the risks for decades,” said EWG Legislative Attorney Melanie Benesh. “It’s outrageous that the Defense Department is now fighting efforts to address a contamination crisis they helped create.”
In July, the House of Representatives voted to designate PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances” in provisions to the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, for FY 2020. House and Senate negotiators will soon decide whether to include the House provision in the final NDAA bill. President Trump has vowed to veto the bill if it is included.
Both bills would quickly end the Pentagon’s use of fluorinated firefighting foam, and the House bill would end the military’s use of PFAS in food packaging.
“Congress should not wait for President Trump’s EPA to act,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “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.”
The new Army data will later be added to the PFAS contamination map maintained by EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, at Northeastern University. The new numbers will bring to 804 the nationwide detections of PFAS in drinking water and groundwater, and at military bases, civilian airports and industrial sites.
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.