By: Kayleigh Coughlin, Communications Intern

The Department of Defense (DOD) has found that more than 600 military installations and surrounding communities could be contaminated with PFAS – far more than have been previously disclosed by the Pentagon.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS are more commonly known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and can accumulate in the body over time. They have been linked to cancer, liver damage and harm to the reproductive and immune systems.

The DOD’s use of firefighting foam made with PFAS, also known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, is the primary source of PFAS pollution at military installations. PFAS have contaminated potable water sources on or near hundreds of military installations across the United States. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has confirmed PFAS contamination in the tap water or groundwater at 328 installations. At 14 of those installations, PFAS contamination exceeds 1 million parts per trillion (ppt), far above the 70 ppt advisory level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Service members and military families can click on this interactive map to find the levels of contamination in a particular area, based on EWG’s research using DoD and other data.

The EPA has known about the health hazards of PFAS contamination for decades but has failed to take action. “The EPA and the Department of Defense have utterly failed to treat PFAS contamination as a crisis demanding swift and decisive action,” said Ken Cook, president of EWG. More than 45 bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to monitor the scope of PFAS contamination, require reporting of PFAS releases, address ongoing PFAS contamination, and clean up legacy PFAS pollution, but heated negotiations are still taking place over the extent of PFAS related provisions. Last December, The House of Representatives passed H.R. 535, the PFAS Action Act of 2019, which would  require the EPA to designate PFOS and PFOA as hazardous substances under the Superfund law within one year of the bill’s enactment, and require set drinking water standards. If approved by the Senate, President Donald Trump has vowed to veto the law.

Just last week, U.S. Rep. Elissa Slotkin introduced a bipartisan bill, The PFAS Exposure Assessment and Documentation Act, to protect military servicemembers and their families from PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ contamination. “The bill takes bold steps to strengthen testing and tracking PFAS exposure in servicemembers, by mandating blood testing for PFAS chemicals for those who may have been exposed, and allowing military families to also get tested for PFAS exposure. The bill also opens up testing to former servicemembers and their families, allowing them to get tested at no cost.” This legislation could be life saving for service members and their families, like Retired Army Pilot, Jim Holmes, who also served in the Air Force.

Jim Holmes’ daughter, Kaela Holmes, died in March 2019, just days after her 17th birthday, from a rare brain cancer that her father now believes to be caused by PFAS contamination. Earlier this year, Holmes appeared before lawmakers to advocate for a stronger Pentagon response to its decadeslong use of PFAS containing firefighting foam. “Holmes told lawmakers in his years at Patrick AFB that he was never warned that water in the area had been contaminated with PFAS, even as the Air Force’s own water sampling showed groundwater contained drastically more PFAS in the drinking water than the Environmental Protection Agency had determined is safe”. The Pengaton will eliminate the use of the PFAS containing firefighting foam entirely by 2024, as required by the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2020, but some in Congress argue that this is not enough. “2024 is ridiculous,” U.S. Representative John Rutherford said, who compared the PFAS contamination with “another Agent Orange barreling down on us.” Holmes demands the Pentagon provide water treatment to communities around Patrick AFB and warn service members and their families about potential drinking water contamination. 

“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,” Holmes said. “Let that sink in for a minute. … I pray that no other service member will ever have to unknowingly sacrifice the life of their child by serving their country.”

As a military dependent myself, I have to wonder … have I been exposed to PFAS contamination? Will my family members experience adverse health effects? We deserve answers and action now. The EPA and the DOD cannot wait any longer to protect the men and women who serve their country from PFAS contamination.

Photo credit: Airman 1st Class Lauren Hunter/Air Force