The Senate’s homeland security panel will hold a critical hearing this Thursday on a shocking inspector general report that found the Defense Department failed to protect service members and their families from the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
Years of PFAS pollution from DOD bases have contaminated drinking water supplies for communities across the U.S., while the use of firefighting foam laced with the chemicals at bases created major health risks for service members. The Defense Department IG's report, released in July, revealed some jaw-dropping details but left unanswered many questions about DOD’s knowledge and handling of PFAS.
Acting IG Sean O’Donnell is slated to testify before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, along with other top DOD officials. The hearing gives senators a chance to quiz the officials on what the IG report found, ignored and obscured.
Key conclusions from the report include revelations that the DOD:
- Waited until 2016 – five years after it issued a “risk alert” – to begin to protect service members from PFAS
- Failed to take an “enterprise-wide” approach to protecting service members from all sources of PFAS, not just PFAS in firefighting foam, in violation of DOD policies
- Failed to track the results of blood testing of military firefighters, violating DOD policies.
Equally troubling, but overlooked, are redactions in the report suggesting the DOD’s environmental leaders may have identified PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common PFAS, as “emerging chemicals” as early as 2006. Those officials even commissioned reports studying PFAS’ impacts on service members. The details of what the DOD found and did in response are blacked out in the IG’s report.
The report does include this bombshell: A 2008 DOD memo said further action to address PFAS in firefighting foam was not needed, because “industry is taking appropriate action” – but foam makers were simply replacing one PFAS with another, equally dangerous one.
And the IG revealed that a critical decision by a senior governance council at the DOD to delay action on PFAS until 2016 likely exposed service members and their families to “preventable risks” from firefighting foam made with PFAS. The council did not endorse a 2011 “risk alert” about PFAS that could have led to swifter action to end the use of foam with PFAS.
Military firefighters and other service members were also not alerted to the risks of PFAS, the IG found. They continued to drink contaminated water, and firefighters continued to handle toxic firefighting foam, without appropriate safeguards. DOD officials only began to filter PFAS from the tap water served on bases in 2016.
PFAS prevalent at DOD bases
Using DOD records, EWG has confirmed PFAS in the groundwater at nearly 400 bases. DOD installations have recorded some of the highest PFAS levels ever found – including bases where PFAS levels in the groundwater exceed 1 million parts per trillion, or ppt. Experts and recent studies by the Environmental Protection Agency suggest the safe level may be lower than 1 ppt.
PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they build up in our blood and organs and do not break down in the environment. Studies show that exposure to very low levels of PFAS can increase the risk of cancer, harm fetal development and reduce vaccine effectiveness.
Despite widespread knowledge of the health risks of PFAS, as well as the DOD’s failure to act, the IG report leaves several crucial questions unanswered: How many service members were drinking tap water contaminated with PFAS? How long were service members drinking contaminated water? And when did the DOD first learn PFAS are harmful to human health?
Records obtained by EWG show some DOD officials suspected the risks posed by PFAS by the early 1970s. Two reports obtained by EWG, issued in 1973 and 1974, cited the toxic effects of PFAS and called for treatment of PFAS wastes.
Other reports obtained by EWG, which relied on animal studies, also found PFAS were toxic. A 1991 study urged the Army to stop using firefighting foam with PFAS. By 2001, the toxic effects of PFAS were clear: The DOD even issued a memo finding PFOS were “persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic.”
The IG also failed to answer two other questions posed by Congress: When did the DOD alert service members, their families and affected communities of the dangers of PFAS contamination? And what is the DOD doing to identify service members, their families and people in these communities?
The DOD has issued reports to Congress detailing the growing number of bases contaminated by PFAS. But neither the IG nor EWG could find evidence that the DOD has estimated the number of service members exposed to PFAS or made any effort to contact them.
Although the IG faults the DOD’s failure to address other sources of PFAS – such as carpets and clothing – the IG did not address when the DOD plans to end unnecessary uses of PFAS, as Congress requested. Nor did the IG provide the DOD’s plan to clean up PFAS contamination.
DOD officials recently testified that cleanup could take 30 years or longer, and an EWG analysis found that cleanup efforts at the most contaminated sites were proceeding slowly.
The hearing will be an opportunity to get answers from the acting IG and others at the DOD about PFAS that are long overdue.