‘Forever chemicals’ contamination at Gulf of Mexico Defense Department sites threatens fish, residents

Groundwater from at least 13 Defense Department sites in the Gulf of Mexico region is contaminated with high levels of the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, according to DOD records obtained by EWG.

The chemicals have seeped into the Gulf of Mexico, adversely affecting Gulf fish, and potentially harming residents’ food supply and livelihoods, if they consume fish contaminated with the chemicals.

The contamination underscores the need for swift PFAS cleanup by DOD, which used these chemicals in firefighting foams despite knowing of their harms for decades.

Although PFAS contamination of the Gulf of Mexico is suspected from hundreds of industrial sites throughout the region, DOD sites are a major source of contamination.

DOD’s records reveal levels of PFAS, including the notorious chemicals PFOA and PFOS, with maximum detections ranging from 718 parts per trillion, or ppt, to 877,000 ppt, in the groundwater at the 13 sites.

There is no enforceable federal drinking water limit for PFAS, but some states have begun to set their own drinking and groundwater standards. Michigan, for example, has set groundwater cleanup criteria and drinking water standards at 8 ppt for PFOA and 16 ppt for PFOS.

The contaminated DOD sites have PFAS detections at levels hundreds of times higher than the standards some states are pursuing to protect human health.

DOD’s contaminated Gulf of Mexico sites include:

  • Silverhill Navy Outlying Field
  • Corry Station
  • Eglin Air Force Base
  • Hurlburt Field Air Force Base
  • MacDill Air Force Base
  • Naval Air Station Pensacola
  • Naval Air Station Pensacola (Bronson Field)
  • Naval Air Station Pensacola (Saufley Field)
  • Tyndall Air Force Base
  • Gulfport Naval Construction Battalion Center
  • Gulfport Regional Airport
  • Keesler Air Force Base
  • Corpus Christi, Texas, Naval Air Station

DOD assessments also show that PFAS may be present in the groundwater at several other bases near the Gulf where the department has not published test results to confirm the presence of PFAS, including:

  • Key West, Fla., Naval Air Station
  • New Orleans Naval Air Station, Joint Reserve Base
  • Panama City Naval Surface Warfare Center Division
  • Pensacola (Ellyson Field)
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PFAS sites along the Gulf of Mexico

PFAS cleanup lags at Gulf of Mexico military bases

DOD’s efforts to clean up PFAS at the affected bases are still in the earliest stages, according to EWG’s review of the department’s records.

Defense facility name

Cleanup status

Maximum PFAS detection (parts per trillion, or ppt)

Alabama

Silverhill Navy Outlying Field

Cleanup status unknown

PFOA at 4.9 ppt in drinking water

Florida

Corry Station

Site Inspection Underway

PFOS at 2,900 ppt in groundwater

Eglin Air Force Base

Remedial Investigation Underway

PFOS at 535,000 ppt in groundwater

Hurlburt Field Air Force Base

Remedial Investigation Underway

6:2 FTS at 185,000 ppt in groundwater

MacDill Air Force Base

Remedial Investigation Underway

PFOS and PFOA at 523,710 ppt in groundwater

Naval Air Station Pensacola

Preliminary Assessment Completed

PFOS and PFOA at 126,300 ppt in groundwater

Naval Air Station Pensacola (Bronson Field)

Site Inspection Underway

PFOS at 1,800 ppt in groundwater

Naval Air Station Pensacola (Saufley Field)

Preliminary Assessment Underway

PFOS and PFOA at 79,000 ppt in groundwater

Tyndall Air Force Base

Site Inspection Completed

PFOS and PFOA at 877,000 ppt in groundwater

Mississippi

Gulfport Naval Construction Battalion Center

Site Inspection Underway

PFOA at 718.5 ppt in groundwater

Gulfport Regional Airport

Site Inspection Complete

PFOS and PFOA at 77,600 ppt in groundwater

Keesler Air Force Base

Remedial Investigation Underway

PFOS and PFOA at 80,819 ppt in groundwater

Texas

Corpus Christi, Texas, Naval Air Station

Site Inspection Complete

PFOA at 358,000 ppt in groundwater

PFAS from these sites could be harming the Gulf of Mexico’s fish, including Gulf oysters, posing potential health risks to anyone who consumes it.

There are no federal guidelines establishing a safe level of consumption of PFAS in fish or seafood.

PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they build up in our bodies and do not break down in the environment. Studies show that exposure to extremely low levels of PFAS can increase the risk of cancerharm fetal development and reduce vaccine effectiveness.

Tell Congress: Stop the PFAS Contamination Crisis

We need your help to protect our water from toxic PFAS chemicals.

Testing fish for PFAS contamination

Earlier this month, the Environmental Protection Agency, collaborating with the DOD, published its first draft national standard for testing fish for PFAS.

In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration created its own tests for the presence of 16 PFAS in foods across eight mid-Atlantic states, focusing on the most commonly consumed foods available in grocery stores, not locally caught fish or raised foods. The FDA detected PFOS in half of the fish sampled.

The most recent FDA tests from 2021 found PFOS in both fish samples. Fish from the Gulf of Mexico was likely not included.

At least one study revealed troubling levels of PFOS, the primary ingredient in firefighting foam, in Gulf oysters. The study found high PFOS concentrations in oysters harvested within a few miles of several DOD installations bordering the Gulf of Mexico.

For example, oysters found in the waters bordering MacDill Air Force Base had 131 nanograms per gram, or ng/g, of PFOS in its flesh, and those found near Eglin Air Force Base had 494 ng/g. The concentrations in oysters within 10 miles of DOD installations ranged from 131 ng/g in oysters from Florida to 685 ng/g in oysters from Texas.

Other studies are currently underway to examine the effects of PFAS bioaccumulation on oyster populations and physiology.

The European Food Safety Authority, or EFSA, set a consumption threshold of 4.4 ng/kg of body weight per week for the combined exposure to PFOA, PFOS, PFNA and PFHxS. For a 160-pound person, a safe level of exposure to these four PFAS in food for an entire week would be 319 ng.

A recent study on releases of PFAS-contaminated firefighting foam building up in fish and oyster populations near Galveston Bay, Texas, showed significant amounts of PFOS in muscle and liver tissue in the months following foam releases. More than 15 percent of fish samples had levels of PFOS above the EPA threshold at which causing toxicity is likely.

EFSA’s new standard for PFAS in food is based on new research showing that exposure to PFAS reduces vaccine efficacy, which is the most sensitive human health effect, according to EFSA scientists.

Several states, including Alabama, are now publishing guidelines to limit consumption of fish contaminated with PFAS.

Get Your FREE Copy of EWG's Guide To Avoiding PFAS Chemicals

Decades of contamination at DOD sites

The potential threat to Gulf fish from PFAS contamination at DOD sites is a local example of a national problem. The chemicals have been detected at more than 300 military installations across the U.S., and they may be present at hundreds of other military sites.

The primary source of PFAS at military bases is the firefighting foam called aqueous firefighting film-forming foam, or AFFF, developed by DOD in the 1960s and first required by the Navy and the Marine Corps in 1967. Legacy formulations of AFFF, used for decades, contained PFOS and PFAS precursors that can break down into PFOA and other toxic PFAS.

DOD has long known about the toxic effects of PFAS pollution. In 1973, an Air Force report cited the toxic effects of AFFF on fish and recommended the use of carbon filters for drinking water to prevent contamination. Later Air Force and Navy reports, in 1974, 1976 and 1978, also cited the toxic effects of AFFF on fish.

In 1983, animal studies financed by the Air Force found that some PFAS were toxic. In 1985, Navy experts again cited the toxic effects of AFFF on fish and, in 1989, called for better management of AFFF waste.

In 2000, DOD learned that 3M planned to stop making AFFF, after internal studies showed evidence of its health hazards. A 2001 DOD memo concluded the main ingredient in AFFF was “persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic.” Months later, an EPA official reiterated to the department the risks posed by PFOS and the entire class of PFAS.

But DOD officials waited another decade to issue a risk alert to service members. It did not take steps to begin to replace AFFF until 2015 – despite a 1991 Army Corps of Engineers recommendation to use nonhazardous substitutes.

A need for PFAS tests at DOD sites

Newer PFAS in replacement firefighting foams have been linked to many of the same health effects as those from PFOS, leading Congress to direct DOD to phase out the use of fluorinated foams altogether by 2024.

Many viable alternatives to AFFF are already on the market, and already meet the international aviation foam standards used by airports all over the world. As of April 2019, more than 100 fluorine-free foams were available, from 24 manufacturers.

In July, DOD's inspector general faulted the department for moving too slowly to address the PFAS contamination crisis.

The same month, the Senate Armed Services Committee included provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022 to set deadlines for PFAS testing and reporting at DOD sites.

In September, the House Armed Services Committee included similar deadline and reporting provisions as well as providing $549 million to finance DOD cleanup efforts. The House bill also phases out household uses of PFAS by the DOD.

Last week, House lawmakers approved a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would protect frontline communities from toxic PFAS, hold industries accountable for reporting PFAS contamination, and require the EPA to set national drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS.

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