The number of places where the U.S. military spilled or suspects it discharged perfluorinated compounds has grown, Pentagon officials said Wednesday, but they did not say where or how many sites are under investigation for possible contamination.
The Department of Defense previously identified 401 sites on active and former military bases where the compounds — perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOS and PFOA — were released or a suspected discharge occurred.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon said Wednesday that continued Department of Defense efforts to identify locations with potentially harmful levels of chemicals uncovered more sites, namely National Guard facilities.
He said the department will name the sites when it has verified the number and locations.
“As part of this process, we think there are probably more installations, and I’m not ready to tell you what that number is, but we found that we under-counted,” McMahon told reporters in a briefing at the Pentagon.
The chemicals, which are used in firefighting foams to battle aircraft and ship fires and also found in household items such as non-stick cookware, stain repellents and food wrappers, have been linked to some types of cancer and birth defects.
In July, Defense Secretary Mark Esper created a task force to determine the extent of the contamination and potential health risks to military personnel and families posed by the chemicals, which fall under a family of compounds known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. The task force also is charged with finding alternatives to PFAS-free firefighting foams.
The group is expected to release an interim report on its findings this month. Originally, the final report was due by January, but Esper shortened the timeline for completion from 180 days to 120, and now, McMahon said, the goal is to release an interim report that will be an “accurate picture of the multitude of things we are doing.” With McMahon retiring from the Department of Defense on Friday, it’s unknown whether there will be a final report.
“I don’t know what will happen after 120 days, whether the task force continues to go or if it stands down. It’s irrelevant to me because the focus is on doing what’s right for our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and their families and the communities. We are going to be just as aggressive,” McMahon said.
The Department of Defense established a new website Tuesday that focuses on its work on PFAS and includes congressional reports and other DoD initiatives addressing the investigation and cleanup.
The move comes the week that a movie about PFAS, “Dark Waters,” premiers. The film tells the story of attorney Robert Bilott’s 20-year fight against DuPont, one of the manufacturers of PFAS chemicals. On Tuesday, the movie’s star, Mark Ruffalo, testified before Congress about the dangers of these chemicals.
They are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down, and build up in blood and tissues if absorbed.
“It’s time to regulate PFAS chemicals," Ruffalo told members of the House Oversight and Reform Environment Subcommittee. "It’s time to end industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water, it’s time to end needless uses of PFAS in everyday products like food packaging, it’s time to finally filter PFAS out of drinking water and it’s time to clean up legacy PFAS contamination, especially at our military bases.”
Also testifying at the hearing was Mark Favors, a former Army specialist whose extended family lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado, near Peterson Air Force Base, and who can count 16 cases of cancer in his family, including 10 deaths, five of which were from kidney cancer.
Peterson is one of the locations where on-base and community water sources tested significantly above the EPA’s recommended PFAS or PFOA exposure limit of 70 parts per trillion.
“Colorado Health Department investigators found that lung, bladder and kidney cancer rates are significantly higher than expected in the same areas of the PFAS water contamination, yet the state has never offered contaminated residents medical monitoring or PFAS blood level tests,” said Favors, who respresented the Fountain Valley (Colorado) Clean Water Coalition.
Dozens of PFAS compounds are used in medical devices, pharmaceuticals and laboratory supplies. As such, Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., the subcommittee’s ranking member, said, caution should be taken when considering “sweeping action” against an entire class of substances.
“We should be careful of taking actions that have the potential to affect vast swaths of the economy, including hospitals and other [industries] that use lifesaving products made from PFAS compounds,” Comer said during the hearing.
Of the 401 sites named by the Defense Department as having a known or suspected discharge of PFAS, 36 on-base locations had contaminated drinking water and more than 90 had either off-base drinking water or groundwater contamination at levels above the Environmental Protection Agency’s accepted threshold.
In cases where the Defense Department found drinking water supplies exceeding the 70 parts per trillion recommendation, the services supplied bottled water and in-home water filtration systems to ensure water quality.
“In some places, we had very marginal levels, so part of this is ‘You don’t have to worry about it.’ But in some places, we have levels that are higher … and we’ve reacted to that,” McMahon said.
Advocacy groups say that no amount of PFAS is safe; the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that has been sounding the alarm on the problem, says that 1 part per trillion is the maximum safe level, based on independent studies.
The EPA has released a draft proposing that the screening level of a contaminated site that would trigger further investigation of PFOS and PFOA should be 40 parts per trillion individually, and for remediation, 70 parts per trillion, combined, in groundwater.
The DoD follows the EPA’s current recommendation of 70 parts per trillion.
McMahon said this week that installation commanders can expect to receive letters instructing them to begin a dialogue, if they have not already done so, with their local communities on the DoD’s PFAS investigation, its findings and any clean up efforts within their communities, according to McMahon.
“One of the things we haven’t done real well is our transparency and activity in getting the message out,” McMahon said. I want our installation commanders to go talk to the community.”
The Environmental Working Group maintains a map, developed in collaboration with the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute, as well as lists of the military installations and sites with known PFAS contamination. According to EWG, of the 100 most contaminated sites, 64 had groundwater contamination exceeding 100,000 parts per trillion. The highest known contamination was seen at the former England Air Force Base, near Alexandria, Louisiana, that measured 20.7 million parts per trillion of a PFAS chemical known as PFHxS.
Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.