After reviewing Defense Department records, a new investigation from the Los Angeles Times revealed that 21 military bases in California were contaminated with “forever chemicals.” At 6 of the facilities, the toxic chemicals threatened the water supply of nearby homes and communities.
PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down from natural causes. Once in the soil or groundwater, PFAS persist and travel, where they can accumulate in the water supply or food sources.
At high enough levels, human exposure to PFAS may cause serious health problems, including pancreatic, testicular, and kidney cancer. Much of the contamination is associated with PFAS-based firefighting foam that was required by the military and commercial airports for decades. This is why firefighters who used such foam are at an elevated risk of developing these cancers.
Although California has the greatest number of contaminated bases, PFAS exposure is a risk that the entire country has to deal with. In May, an Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis found 610 sites in 43 states that were contaminated with PFAS and at least 475 industrial sites that are potentially discharging PFAS into the air and water.
These communities are likely facing the same troubles as those in California. But because there are few reporting requirements for PFAS, the extent of the risk is poorly understood at best.
What Are PFAS and Why Do They Pose a Problem?
There are a number of industrial, commercial, and consumer uses for PFAS. They are sometimes referred to as the “non-stick” chemicals for their role in products like Teflon cooking pans and water-repellent products.
In PFAS-based firefighting foam, which is used for fires involving flammable liquids, the chemicals create a film that coats the blaze, preventing it from getting oxygen. Also known as Aqueous film forming foams (AFFF), firefighters used these to suppress fires at chemical plants, airports, and on-board vessels.
Unfortunately, PFAS don’t degrade once they are released into the environment. Whether they are being excreted by a factory or shot out of a hose at a fire training center, these highly mobile pollutants collect in the groundwater, the food supply, and eventually inside humans, where they can cause a range of health problems, including:
- Low birth weight
- Thyroid hormone disruption
- Kidney disease
- High cholesterol
- Ulcerative colitis
- Interfering with the immune system
- Reduced effectiveness of vaccines
As good as PFAS are at moving through the environment, they stay localized once they enter the human body. A study found increased PFAS levels in firefighters who used AFFF on 3 occasions in spite of low concentrations in the AFFF sample. In other words, PFAS can accumulate quickly inside the body and they may not ever leave.
Lack of Pentagon Testing Leaves Communities in the Dark
Because of firefighting foam lawsuits and public health advocacy of groups like EWG, the dangers of PFAS have been in the headlines for much of 2019. What makes the LA Times piece so disturbing is the slow and tight-lipped response by those responsible.
According to records analyzed by the LA Times, PFAS have been detected in private and public water sources outside the boundaries of military bases spread throughout the state. Despite the widespread contamination and long-term threat, some environmental groups worry that the Pentagon has been too slow to survey the extent of the threat.
Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics warned that, “The PFAS plumes are spreading near these military bases, and DOD is turning a blind eye.”
The reporters documented two cases where military contractors had warned residents about contamination and noted that the Defense Department had not completed off-base testing at either location.
It’s not that PFAS haven’t been on the Pentagon’s radar. In July, incoming Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the creation of a PFAS task force on his first day in office. To date, the Defense Department has tested all 524 water systems it is responsible for.
It has also targeted specific sites where firefighting foam was used to investigate the possible contamination of public and private wells. Where risks are identified, alternative water supplies are provided. When AFFF must be used, it is treated as a spill and cleaned up accordingly.
The problem is that the pace of the testing is not nearly fast enough to give regulators a comprehensive picture of the potential health crisis.
Failure to Warn Residents All but Guarantees Disaster
Earlier this year, a dairy farmer in New Mexico had to dump 15,000 gallons of milk a day, fire 40 employees, and euthanize all 4,000 of his cows after he learned that some of the wells on his property were contaminated with PFAS.
With Cannon Air Force Base nearby, the source of the groundwater contamination was not hard to figure out. The tough question to ask was why Art Schapp, the unfortunate farmer, was never told about the danger that lurked in underneath his feet. In the words of Schapp, who spoke with Searchlight New Mexico:
“This has poisoned everything I’ve worked for and everything I care about.
I can’t sell the milk. I can’t sell beef. I can’t sell the cows. I can’t sell crops or my property. The Air Force knew they had contamination. What I really wonder is, why didn’t they say something?”
Unfortunately, the story is not an isolated incident — PFAS contamination in milk has been discovered in Maine, as well — but the question raised by Schapp emphasizes the issue.
If the government knows something is dangerous, why aren’t they warning people?
Lack of PFAS Reporting Requirements Invites Disaster
One change that could make an immediate difference would be an EPA reclassification of PFAS. Because they are only an “emerging contaminant,” there is little government oversight of PFAS and regulations typically amount to informal guidance. If PFAS were classified as a “hazardous substance,” it would kickstart the federal cleanup process.
Once a chemical has been labeled as “hazardous,” it triggers reporting requirements. This would give regulators and the public a much better sense of the danger posed by continued and legacy PFAS production.
Additionally, any release of a designated hazardous substance triggers an investigation or potential cleanup. With contaminants and pollutants, substantial danger to the public health must be demonstrated before the site can be addressed.
Some states have drafted much stricter laws for PFAS, but given PFAS ability to travel, that can only do so much. In California, for example, there are no companies that manufactured PFAS, according to state regulators. Yet even with tighter laws and no legacy of PFAS production, California is clearly struggling with extensive toxic contamination.
Individuals May File Firefighting Foam Lawsuits
Due to PFAS lawsuits that involve workers who used to manufacture firefighting foam and other PFAS-based products, the risks of these chemicals have been known for more than a generation.
Despite the dangers, firefighting foam was still widely used. Sadly, firefighters who used and trained with AFFF are at an increased risk of developing pancreatic, kidney, and testicular cancer.
If you, or someone you know, have worked with firefighting foam and developed cancer, receive a free case review to find out if you can seek compensation for your illness.