Firefighting Foam Chemicals Contaminate Drinking Water at 28 U.S. Military Bases

Published on March 24, 2020 by Laurie Villanueva

Drinking water at 28 United States military basis is contaminated with dangerously high levels of PFAS, the toxic chemicals found in certain firefighting foams.

This stunning revelation comes from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), which recently obtained the data from the U.S. Department of Defense through a Freedom of Information Act Request.

According to the EWG’s analysis, the most contaminated sites included Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, the West Point Military Academy, in New York, and the Yuma Proving Ground, in Arizona.

In some cases, the PFAS detected in tap water exceed the standards set or proposed by a number of states. The Center Strafford Training Site in New Hampshire, for example, had total PFAS of 60.6 ppt – four or five times that state’s legal limits for two specific chemicals, PFOA and PFOS.

Many experts have concluded the safe level for PFAS in drinking water is 1 ppt.

“It’s deeply troubling that service members and their families are drinking water that may have unsafe levels of PFAS,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.

About PFAS: The Forever Chemicals

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) 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.

Two specific PFAS — PFOA and PFOS – can be found in many aqueous film-forming firefighting foams, which for decades have been used at military installations and in civilians setting to extinguish fires driven by jet fuel and other highly flammable liquids.

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.

Defense Department Aware of Firefighting Foam Risks Since 1970s

According to the EWG, the Defense Department has been aware of the health risks associated with PFAS-containing firefighting foams since the 1970s, when studies confirmed the products were toxic to fish. In 2001, the Department concluded that the main ingredient in aqueous film-forming foam was “persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic.”

While the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision to phase-out the use of aqueous film-forming firefighting foams by 2024, the EWG maintains that more needs to be done to address the risks posed by PFAS, especially PFOA and PFAS.

“Congress should do much more to accelerate the cleanup of legacy PFAS contamination,” Faber continued. “To do so, Congress should increase funding for programs like the Defense Environmental Restoration Program and designate PFAS as hazardous substances under EPA’s Superfund program, which will ensure that PFAS manufacturers pay their fair share of cleanup costs.”

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