WASHINGTON – Water sampled on or near at least 106 military sites was contaminated with toxic fluorinated chemicals, known as PFAS, above what EPA considers safe, according to Department of Defense data analyzed by EWG. But that’s only the tip of a toxic iceberg.
PFAS on military installations is widespread because for nearly 50 years, the Pentagon has used firefighting foam that contains these chemicals. Studies link PFAS exposure to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and weakened childhood immunity, among an array of serious health problems.
EWG’s new report includes an interactive map of bases that analysts identified from a Defense Department presentation to Congress last year. It also lays out how the DOD long ago knew about the health hazards of PFAS chemicals but continued using the toxic firefighting foam until a few years ago.
The analysis is being released on the same day as the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee holds a hearing into PFAS contamination that includes testimony from Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense in charge of DOD’s environmental policies and programs.
Last year, Sullivan told a House oversight committee that there were 401 installations where there are known or suspected releases of the two most notorious PFAS chemicals into groundwater. But the information released then was incomplete and imprecise, and included only sites where contamination levels exceeded the EPA’s non-binding health advisory, a standard that independent scientists and a growing number of states say is far too lax.
EWG has submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for more details but has not yet received a complete response.
“Members of the military and their families share an outsize burden from exposure to PFAS contamination,” said Melanie Benesh, EWG legislative attorney and co-author of the report. “The Pentagon must finally own up to its responsibility and clean up this mess it not only helped create but perpetuated for decades.”
PFAS chemicals were first created and introduced into commerce in the 1940s. The two best known are PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. Those chemicals have been phased out in the U.S.
Despite concerns voiced by both 3M and Navy scientists as early as the 1970s, the military has continued to require the use of PFAS-based firefighting foam for nearly 50 years. In 2000, the military learned from an EPA official that, under pressure from the agency, 3M had decided to stop the production of PFOS, the primary PFAS chemical in firefighting foams.
A year later, an internal memo indicated that the Defense Department knew PFOS was “persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic.” But DOD waited another decade to issue a “risk alert” with guidelines to reduce future releases, and another four years beyond that to begin to phase out the use of the foam.
PFAS cleanup at military facilities would fall under the jurisdiction of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program. In 1986, Congress amended the Superfund law to include active and decommissioned military facilities, and established the Defense Environmental Restoration Program, or DERP, within the Department of Defense, to address pollution at both active and decommissioned military installations.
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.