New report finds dangerous levels of ‘forever chemicals’ found around
"Women exposed PFAS in drinking water have reported uterine tumors, birth
defects, hysterectomies, and miscarriages.
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released new health
advisories for four different polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl chemicals,
more commonly known as PFAS, acknowledging the toxicity of the family of
chemicals linked to several types of cancer, reproductive problems, and
PFAS are commonly known as “forever chemicals” because once they enter
the bloodstream they are virtually indestructible. PFAS are found in a range
of commonplace items from nonstick pans to body lotion to pizza boxes. As
one New York Times piece put it, “To say that PFAS are difficult to avoid is
an understatement.” Even so, that’s more true for some than others.
Defense communities are among the hardest hit, primarily because of the
Pentagon’s use of AFFF, an effective but deadly firefighting foam containing
PFAS. When it rains, all of those “forever chemicals” wash away, oftentimes
entering nearby drinking water sources. Even though internal Air Force
reports acknowledged the toxicity of PFAS as early as 1973, the military
continued to use AFFF.
Today, at least 400 military sites have confirmed PFAS contamination in their
groundwater. Women exposed to PFAS reported uterine tumors, birth
defects, hysterectomies, and miscarriages. “Don’t get pregnant,” one 19-
year-old airman was warned.
The new interim advisories for PFOA and PFOS, the two most notorious
PFAS chemicals, were set at .004 and .02 parts per trillion respectively.
These new advisories reflect the potency of PFAS chemicals, which can be
dangerous even in trace amounts.
These advisories are, well, advisories — meaning they aren’t legally
enforceable. In a press release, the EPA explained that regulations for PFOS
and PFOA are likely to come soon, and that they will unveil those plans later
this year. Several advocacy groups recommend an enforceable limit of 1 part
per trillion for the sum of all PFAS.
Though the Pentagon, at Congress’ direction, is finally phasing out
firefighting foam containing PFAS by 2026, it has dragged its feet in
cleanup. Recent testing revealed that Naval Air Station Whiting Field has
PFOA levels at 51,500 times above the new interim health advisory. Naval Air
Station Whidbey Island is even more stark, with PFOS levels at 236,000
times above the new advisory level.
An analysis of 50 contaminated bases by the Environmental Working Group
found that it took an average of six years between the date contamination
was first suspected at a base and when the Pentagon started drafting
cleanup plans. None of the 50 bases in question had even begun the formal
Melanie Benesh, a legislative attorney at Environmental Working Group, laid
out the Pentagon’s negligence during a phone call with Responsible
Statecraft: “Any action by DoD is long overdue because they have known
since the 1970s that the chemicals are toxic and they waited until really just
a few years ago to take action and start addressing this. Community
members have every right to be frustrated.”
While action on the two most well-known PFAS is much-needed, PFAS is a
family of thousands of chemicals. Without regulation of the entire PFAS
family, there remain loopholes that can be exploited. In the past, the
Pentagon has simply replaced one toxic PFAS in its firefighting foam with
another. Testing at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island showed there were six
separate types of PFAS in its water, including one with an alarmingly high
1150 parts per trillion which the new advisories don’t apply to.
Mark Favors, an Army Veteran and clean water advocate characterized this
approach of going after individual chemicals like PFOS and PFOA as a game
of “whack-a-mole” during a call with Responsible Statecraft. In its press
release, the EPA said it is “considering actions to address groups of PFAS,”
but stopped short of giving further details. For now, it seems the “whack-a-
mole” approach is set to continue.
In addition to the new advisories, the EPA announced it was making $1 billion
in funds available for disadvantaged communities to address PFAS
contamination, the first of $5 billion through the infrastructure law passed
last year. Asked about PFAS contamination cleanup, Favors said that it’s
impossible to know the costs ahead because the Pentagon is given impunity
and allowed to investigate itself.
“We’re talking about 400 bases,” Favors noted. “The bill is going to be high,
so from their perspective, it’s easier in the end to simply not deal with it.”
As he pointed out, the one bill that passes every year without fail is the
defense bill. “It’s hard to find people in Congress that will ask tough
questions to the Pentagon,” he says. Last week’s Senate Armed Services
Committee markup for the annual defense bill included $20 million for an
ongoing nationwide PFAS study at military installations, a drop in the bucket
for the now $847 billion defense bill.
For some, the new announcement is too little too late. Favors, who has
testified that he lost several family members to PFAS-related cancer, said
that “While this announcement will help protect future service members and
families, it will not restore the damages to my family’s health.”