Former Army reservist Spc. Mark Favors comes from a military family who has lived for generations near Colorado Springs’ Air Force and Army installations.
It’s taken a severe toll, he said.
Favors, 50, can count at least 16 relatives from the area who have been diagnosed with cancer; 10 have died. Six of those relatives have died since 2012, including his father at age 69 and two cousins, ages 38 and 54.
“In my family alone, we have had five kidney cancer deaths,” Favors said. “And those people only lived in the contaminated area.”
Many of Favors’ relatives lived near Peterson Air Force Base, where scores of both on-base and off base water sources have tested significantly above the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended exposure of 70 parts per trillion of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFAS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The compounds were part of the military’s firefighting foam until just last year. The compounds have been linked to cancers and developmental delays for fetuses and infants.
Peterson’s contamination ranges from 79 to 88,400 parts per trillion in its on-base wells and 79 to 7,910 parts per trillion in public and private drinking wells off base.
Questions of whether groundwater contaminated by the chemical compounds from military firefighting foam caused cancer clusters around installations continue to gain traction in Washington. In March 2018, the Pentagon released its first-ever assessment of the extent of the contamination. The last two defense bills have provided funding to assess the impact of PFAS and PFOA at 10 military communities; that study is now underway.
On Wednesday, before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform subcommittee on the environment, Favors and others will testify in a hearing with Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment.
“In my family there are at least seven military veterans who themselves, along with their spouses and children’s drinking water had been contaminated without their knowledge, while they were on active duty in the U.S. Army and/or deployed to Iraq,” said Favors, in testimony he provided to Military Times in advance of the hearing.
DoD previously said it was not until the EPA published its 70 parts per trillion guidelines that it understood how harmful exposure could be and voluntarily took action; something Favors doesn’t buy. The issue has been explored in-depth by the Colorado Springs Gazette, which produced a timeline dating back to the first concerns about the foam — in 1962.
What’s more, nearby Fort Carson stopped using the chemicals in 1991, after an Army Corps of Engineers Study looked at harmful chemicals at its installations.
“Aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) is considered a hazardous material in a number of states,” the 1991 study, which was obtained by Military Times, read. “Firefighting operations that use AFFF must be replaced with nonhazardous substitutes.”
To Favors, that admission means the Pentagon knew the foam was harmful, and he wants to know why it didn’t take action earlier.
“We’re trying to get justice,” Favors said.
So far, there’s been no easy help. Peterson Air Force Base addressed its drinking wells in 2016, the year the EPA published its exposure guidelines. DoD provided drinking water and installed filters for families in the area, even though EPA’s guidelines were not enforceable and the Pentagon faced no penalty if it did not take action.
Relatives of Favors’ deceased family members could have sought remedy from the state. But Colorado has a two-year statute of limitations, and those family members found out about the potential cancer links too late to sue.
Some communities are taking action on their own. In Florida, the state health department has collected data on cancer clusters around Patrick Air Force Base.
DoD was also directed in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act to:
- Conduct an analysis "that considers the current scientific evidence base linking the health effects of PFAS on individuals who served as members of the Armed Forces and were exposed to PFAS at military installations.
- Provide an estimate of the number of members of the Armed Forces and veterans who may have been exposed to PFAS while serving in the Armed Forces.
- Develop a process that would facilitate the transfer — between the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs — of health information of individuals who served in the Armed Forces and may have been exposed to PFAS during such service
- Generate an estimate of the amount of funding that would be required to administer a potential registry of individuals who may have been exposed to PFAS while serving in the Armed Forces.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."