The presence of “forever chemicals” in military bases has emerged as a critical issue that intersects environmental science, public health, and legal accountability. The term “forever chemicals” refers to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
It’s a group of synthetic chemicals known for their unparalleled resistance to degradation in the environment. These compounds have earned their ominous nickname due to their astonishingly durable nature, remaining virtually unchanged for generations.
The use of PFAS has been deeply ingrained within military operations, particularly in the form of firefighting foam known as Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF). However, the unintended consequences of PFAS have cast a dark shadow over their utility.
This article aims to uncover the intricate web of challenges associated with PFAS contamination.
Why Are PFAS Used in Military Bases?
PFAS have found extensive use in military bases primarily for their exceptional fire suppression properties. PFAS-containing firefighting foams, notably AFFF, have been a staple in combating jet fuel fires, which are a considerable risk in aviation and military settings. Their effectiveness in rapidly smothering such high-intensity fires has made them a preferred choice for decades.
Beyond firefighting foams, PFAS has also played a role in various other military applications. This includes aircraft coatings and lubricants, owing to their resistance to heat and chemical breakdown.
However, the widespread use of PFAS has led to significant environmental contamination, sparking concerns and legal actions. One notable example is the firefighter foam lawsuit, where military and civilian firefighters alleged harm from exposure to AFFF.
This lawsuit underscores the serious health risks associated with PFAS exposure, prompting scrutiny of their continued use and the urgent need for safer alternatives.
As per TorHoerman Law, the multidistrict litigation (MDL) for individual lawsuits about injuries resulting from exposure to AFFF is expanding. There have been nearly 6,000 individual AFFF Lawsuits now consolidated within the MDL.
Additionally, AFFF Lawsuits initiated by municipalities due to water contamination issues are approaching a comprehensive settlement. They are reportedly valued at more than $10.3 billion.
What Are the Health Risks of PFAS Exposure?
Exposure to PFAS has been associated with a range of significant health risks, including cancer, reproductive issues, and developmental delays in children. One poignant example comes from the case of Gary Flook, who served in the Air Force for 37 years.
PBS NewsHour notes that Flook worked as a firefighter at military bases like Chanute Air Force Base and Grissom Air Force Base. During his service, he regularly trained with AFFF, unaware of the potential health hazards it posed.
Tragically, in 2000, at the age of 45, Flook received a life-altering diagnosis of testicular cancer, necessitating an orchiectomy and subsequent chemotherapy. This story underscores a concerning pattern, supported by multiple studies, wherein firefighters, have been found to have higher rates of testicular cancer.
How Widespread is PFAS Contamination on Military Bases?
PFAS contamination is a widespread and concerning issue that has affected hundreds of installations across the United States. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Defense Department records indicate that over 700 military installations are likely contaminated with PFAS.
The Department of Defense (DOD) has confirmed PFAS detections at 455 sites, encompassing both drinking water and groundwater. Moreover, concerns regarding potential contamination persist at an additional 255 military bases. This brings the total number of DOD sites with confirmed or suspected PFAS contamination to a staggering 710.
This issue extends to various regions. There have been alarming findings in Hawaii, where five of the top 20 locations of newly reported PFAS detections are situated. Pearl Harbor, a historically significant military installation located just eight miles west of Honolulu, has also been affected. Two of its sites recorded PFAS detections exceeding 2 million parts per trillion.
Such widespread contamination poses immediate risks to military personnel and raises serious concerns about the potential health and environmental consequences.
What Are the Military Doing to Address PFAS Contamination?
The military has initiated a series of measures to tackle the pressing issue of PFAS contamination. These efforts encompass several key areas:
- Testing water supplies: The military is actively testing water supplies on bases to identify PFAS contamination. This is essential for understanding the scope of the problem and ensuring that contaminated water sources are not used for consumption or other purposes.
- Cleanup of contaminated sites: Cleanup operations are underway at numerous military bases with confirmed PFAS contamination. These efforts involve the removal and remediation of contaminated soil and groundwater to prevent further environmental damage.
- Research for PFAS-free alternatives: The military is investing in research and development to create firefighting foams that do not contain PFAS. This marks a crucial step toward preventing future contamination while maintaining fire safety protocols.
However, progress in addressing PFAS contamination has been criticized for its slow pace. According to Stars And Stripes, environmental advocates have raised concerns about the protracted timeline for cleanup efforts. They suggest that without additional funding, the issue could persist for decades.
The Pentagon has estimated a substantial financial requirement of at least $31 billion to address PFAS contamination at known affected sites. Accelerating these efforts and securing necessary resources is imperative to protect both military personnel and surrounding communities.
PFAS, known for its enduring nature and widespread use in military operations, has left a trail of environmental destruction. It has also raised significant health concerns for military personnel and nearby communities.
A concerted effort from the military, regulatory bodies, and lawmakers is needed to confront and resolve this crisis effectively. The well-being of military personnel, and the safety of neighboring communities, depend on swift and comprehensive action to combat PFAS contamination.