On Valentine’s Day this year, consumer and environmental groups waited with excitement to hear the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s much-touted national plan to crack down on PFAS contamination. EPA's national plan to address public health risks caused by PFAS chemicals fell far short of the actions that EPA has promised to take to protect public health, exacerbating a crisis occurring on military bases around the country.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS or PFOA — are used in items like dental floss, nonstick cookware, car seats, and, most notably on military bases, in firefighting foam.
The World Health Organization considers PFAS possibly carcinogenic to humans, and the EPA itself says there is “suggestive evidence” that two of the mostly widely used kinds of PFAS “may cause cancer.” PFAS exposure studies have indicated certain PFAS may have other negative health effects: developmental issues in infants and children, high cholesterol levels, hormone disruption, and lowered immunity.
As of August 2017, DoD had identified 126 military installations in the United States with at least one area where there is a known or suspected release of PFOS/PFOA. In all, 25 Army bases; 50 Air Force bases, 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites have tested at higher than acceptable levels for the compounds in either their drinking water or groundwater sources. Additionally, DoD tested 2,668 groundwater wells both on and in the surrounding off-base community and found that 61 percent of them tested above the EPA’s recommended levels.
It is suspected by researchers that the groundwater contamination on military bases is caused by firefighting foam, which the military uses in practice drills (other countries, such as Australia, have been shifting to using non-PFAS containing foam in practice drills). So many military installations have an elevated risk of PFAS groundwater contamination.
This is not a small matter: the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that over 5 million people live within 3 miles of only 87 of the contaminated military sites in the U.S.
Military communities deserve our support — but they’ve gotten insufficient attention in the conversation about water pollution, despite their elevated risk.
So will the EPA act to crack down on PFAS? Acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler told reporters on Valentine’s Day that the EPA initiative is moving toward classifying PFAS as a hazardous substance under the EPA’s Superfund program, allowing the EPA to clean up sites and force polluters to pay.
Wheeler called this a “historic moment” in the agency’s efforts to address an “emerging chemical of concern.” Sadly, the plan was simply a list of items that the EPA may use to address PFAS contamination — not an action plan with any benchmarks, limits, or goals.
Basically, the EPA is kicking the can down the road so that it doesn’t have to address PFAS yet. That just won’t work for our military families.
In just one military town, Portsmouth, Virginia, over 1500 people were found to have elevated PFAS levels in their blood. That’s unacceptable. It is time for the EPA to act, not time for EPA personnel to pontificate on what they may or may not do to act in the future.
Our military families deserve healthy, safe drinking water.