New analysis by US science advocacy organization the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) highlights significant health risks posed to military families and communities by per and poly fluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), a class of synthetic chemicals found in firefighting foam, nonstick cookware and other products.
PFAS are long-lasting compounds known to accumulate in the human body and environment, including water supplies. Exposure to the chemicals is associated with a range of detrimental health effects including kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, and decreased immunological response.
The research paper “A Toxic Threat: Government Must Act Now on PFAS Contamination at Military Bases” (released September 25) describes how hundreds of sites across the US, including military facilities where thousands of service members and their families live and work, have been contaminated for years with PFAS.
Military installations and adjacent communities are especially at risk because the sites use PFAS-containing firefighting foam in their trainings and operations. These chemicals have seeped into the ground and waterways near military sites, and in turn contaminated groundwater and the drinking water that serves the bases and nearby homes.
Documents obtained by UCS through Freedom of Information Act request this spring showed that the Trump Administration had suppressed a government assessment on the health effects of PFAS, calling it a “public relations nightmare.” Soon after, public pressure and a bipartisan congressional effort led to the release of the study in June which revealed that PFAS exposure could be dangerous at levels the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe. The 2018 assessment by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, finds that the safe level of PFAS exposure is 7 to 10 times lower than the EPA’s non-enforceable drinking water advisory.
In light of a new scientific assessment by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), an office within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, UCS found that the threats facing military families and nearby communities is worse than previously thought. The ATSDR draft report suggests that the safe level of PFAS in drinking water should be seven to 10 times lower than the current, non-enforceable federal guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This means that thousands of families living on or near current or former military installations face potential risks from levels of PFAS once deemed safe, and some might not even know it.
The UCS analysis, which mapped 131 military sites across 37 states at which PFAS levels have been detected in drinking water and groundwater, found:
- Of the 32 sites with direct drinking water contamination, more than half had PFAS concentrations that were at least 10 times higher than the risk level established by the ATSDR.
- More than 90 percent of the military sites, 118, had PFAS concentrations at least 10 times higher than the threshold identified by the ATSDR report.
- Nearly two-thirds of the sites, 87, had PFAS concentrations at least 100 times higher than the risk level identified in the ATSDR report.
- The ten sites with the highest detected PFAS levels in groundwater include bases in California, Florida, Delaware, Virginia and Texas, as well as former base sites in Louisiana, South Carolina and Illinois. These sites have PFAS levels in groundwater more than 100,000 times higher than the suggested threshold.
- The number of military sites with PFAS contamination is likely even higher since the Pentagon used the EPA’s drinking water health advisory of 70 ppt as the PFAS detection level and only tested for the two most common compounds.
- “The EPA is not doing nearly enough to protect families, especially military families, from PFAS contamination of their water,” said Genna Reed, the UCS analyst who reviewed the evidence of PFAS contamination. “These chemicals can have serious health consequences, but their manufacturers have downplayed the risks for decades, putting profits ahead of public health.”
“We need immediate action to reduce the risk to military families from PFAS contamination,” Reed said. “The federal government must limit the future use of PFAS chemicals, set an enforceable standard for PFAS contamination in drinking water, mandate reporting of PFAS releases, and provide support to clean up contaminated sites. Servicemembers, their families and nearby communities deserve better.”