Mapping PFAS Chemical Contamination at 206 U.S. Military Sites: The Pentagon’s 50-Year History With PFAS Chemicals
By Jared Hayes, Policy Analyst and Scott Faber, Vice President of Government Affairs
Despite knowing about the potential health hazards of firefighting foam made with toxic PFAS chemicals, the Department of Defense continued to use aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, for decades. The department started phasing out the use of AFFF produced with the two best-known PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, only in 2015, and continues to use foams with similar chemicals that may be just as harmful.
The department has used firefighting foam containing PFAS since 1967. The Navy worked with 3M to develop AFFF in the early 1960s and sought to patent the firefighting foam in 1963. It is not clear whether 3M was aware that PFAS caused serious health problems when the Navy was granted the patent in 1966 or whether those risks were shared with Navy scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory. In 1969, the Navy required the use of AFFF.
But according to groundbreaking reporting by Sharon Lerner of The Intercept, by the 1970s, both 3M and the Navy had become aware of concerns with AFFF.
In 1974, a Navy report asked whether AFFF alternatives ought to be considered for “environmental impact” reasons. One year later, 3M scientists had been alerted that PFAS chemicals appeared to be building up in Americans’ bodies. In 1976, Navy scientists again suggested exploring alternatives to AFFF, citing environmental concerns.
In 1978, another Navy report again explored the risks posed by AFFF and noted “difficulties obtaining adequate information” from 3M. By now, 3M had been finding PFAS chemicals in the blood of its workers at “1,000 times normal.” Although animal studies led 3M to conclude that PFOA and PFOS “should be regarded as toxic,” 3M concluded that the “risks should not be reported at this time.”
Other 3M animal studies conducted in 1978 and 1979 confirmed the risks posed by PFOS and PFOA. And outside experts contracted by 3M also raised concerns. But it is not clear whether 3M disclosed the risks to the Navy or others, despite rising blood levels and cancer rates among 3M workers.
What is clear is that military officials were aware of the toxicity of PFOA in rats and monkeys at least since 1980. That’s when the military began its own research. In 1981, an Air Force study found AFFF harmful to female rats and their pups, including low birth weights. In 1983, the Air Force released a study on mouse tissue that found that perfluorinated chemicals could damage cell growth. In 1985, the Air Force released a second study that suggested that PFAS chemicals could be harmful to cell growth.
In 1989, after firefighting foam was suspected in animal and plant deaths near Peterson Air Force Base, in Colorado, the Air Force recommended measures to sequester AFFF. In 1991, the Army Corps of Engineers told Fort Carson, Colo., to stop using “hazardous” AFFF and instead to use “nonhazardous substitutes.” By the mid-1990s, the Navy had begun to explore alternatives to AFFF, and the Army was warning soldiers to treat firefighting foam as hazardous waste.
It was not until 2000, however, that the military learned from an Environmental Protection Agency official that 3M had decided to stop production of PFOS, and that a 3M animal study revealed serious health risks, even at very low doses. In 2001, an internal DOD memo “indicated” that PFOS was “persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic.” DOD waited another decade to issue a “risk alert” with guidelines to reduce future releases.
The military has been slow to phase out the use of AFFF produced with PFOA and PFOS. The switch began in 2015. The Air Force completed the transition in 2018, but the Army is not scheduled to replace AFFF with PFOA and PFOS until this year and the Navy is not scheduled to replace older formulations until 2020. In addition, the military has so far refused to end the use of foams containing other PFAS chemicals, even though PFAS-free alternatives have proved to be as effective.