Military Faulted for Failing to Adequately Communicate Firefighter Foam Risks

Published on March 18, 2020 by Sandy Liebhard

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is being faulted for failing to adequately communicate the health risks associated with PFAS-containing firefighter foams to military personnel and their families.

According to the Military Times, the DOD began testing military firefighters for exposure to chemicals in firefighting foams earlier this year, at the direction of Congress. However, the Department is apparently not conducting widespread evaluations or communicating the potential health impacts to most other troops, family members and former occupants of installations contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS.

Firefighting Foams and Military Basis

“I was flying through Goodfellow Air Force Base [Texas] last week. Talked to a military firefighter instructor about PFAS. He did not know that [aqueous film forming foam] is hazardous,” Jim Holmes, a retired Army reservist told members of the House Appropriations Military Construction, Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies Subcommittee during a hearing on the matter last week. “He is currently teaching all the DOD firefighters and he doesn’t know.”

For the past year, Holmes has been pushing the federal government to better inform service members and their families about PFAS contamination at military bases around the United States, as well as the risks of exposure. Homes daughter – who spent much of her childhood at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida – died last year from a rare brain cancer.  At least 15 others on the base or in the surrounding communities have received diagnoses of breast or brain cancers.

According to the Military Times, Patrick is the third most PFAS-contaminated base in the U.S., with groundwater readings of 4.3 million parts per trillion.

“Not once in the 16 years we’ve lived in the Patrick Air Force Base/Satellite Beach, were we ever made aware that the ground water was severely contaminated with a hazardous substance called PFAS,” Holmes said during his testimony. “I will have to live the rest of my life knowing that my decision to serve in the military and reside on a United States Air Force Base resulted in the death of my beautiful daughter.”

About PFAS in Firefighting Foams

PFAS are manmade chemicals used in everything from stain retardant fabrics and Teflon cookware to food packaging and cleaning products. These “forever chemicals” don’t break down in the environment or the human body, and are known to interfere with immune function, endocrine function and breast development.

PFAS are also used to manufacture some aqueous film-forming firefighting foams. For decades, these products were used at military basis and civilian settings across the United States to extinguish fires driven by jet fuel and other highly flammable liquids.

Two specific PFAS used in firefighting foams — PFOA and PFOS – have been linked to cancer and other adverse health effects in studies involving lab animals. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies both chemicals as “emerging contaminants,” and has established a “Lifetime Health Advisory” setting a recommended lifetime limit for exposure from drinking water. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has also issued a warning regarding increased risks of breast cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, testicular cancer and kidney cancer related to the use of firefighting foam at U.S. military installations.

DOD Working to Develop PFAS-Free Firefighting Foam

During last week’s congressional hearing, Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the environment, outlined the Defense Department’s actions on PFAS, including a $49 million effort to develop a PFAS-free firefighter foams, reserving use of the foams solely for land emergencies, and  working with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to study PFAS exposure.

The DOD has also published additional policies on testing drinking water on bases, as well as requirements for notifying on-base populations. But as Rep. Deborah Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., pointed out, it’s up to commanders at each base to determine exactly how that information should be distributed.

“That’s the opposite of consistency,” Wasserman Schultz said.  “You said you are giving them information and making sure it is being communicated consistently and uniformly, and now you are saying you are letting them make those decisions.”

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