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Posted on November 07th, 2019
Military families are waking up to the fact that they have been drinking contaminated water for decades. Some of the officers have recently returned from war zones back home, where they assumed they'd be safe, only to witness neighbors and family members get sick.
It turns out that the military has allowed chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, to slip into the water systems at military bases around the globe, sometimes for generations. A major contributor to the contamination is firefighting foam (AFFF) because it contains high concentrations of PFAS. The chemicals create a film that extinguishes fires where petroleum-based explosions pose a danger by cooling burning aircraft fuel and blanketing flammable vapors.
PFAS were developed by the Navy and 3M Co. Because they are oil and water-repellent, they have been used for decades, not only in firefighting foam but also in a large array of products: nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, furniture, food packaging. Companies like DuPont have also used the chemicals extensively and have come under fire for contaminating water systems with PFAS.
In 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified PFAS as an emerging contaminant linked to liver cancer, immune suppression, and other serious health problems. EPA also prescribed a threshold lifetime health advisory limit, which is 70 parts-per-trillion. But officials in several states have set their own standards, at levels as low as 5.1 parts-per-trillion. Since then, the Pentagon has confirmed PFAS presence in the drinking water of 297 installations, 108 of which are Army posts.
The military continued to use foams containing toxic chemical compounds. Industry officials have defended themselves by claiming they are following EPA rules. For example, in 2000, 3M terminated the production of some of the compounds. Because companies have continued to produce them and the EPA is still exploring regulation, the military continued to use toxic chemical compounds.
For years, there were signs that the military's firefighting foam was dangerous. In fact, comprehensive data, based on a study of 69,000 people living near a region with PFOA exposure from contaminated drinking water, say that, among other problems, toxic exposure is associated with:
The chemicals move quickly through the earth and into the water, where they persist indefinitely. Because many PFAS can be absorbed into people's blood and accumulate in their bodies for years, even very low concentrations in drinking water can increase the risks of serious health problems. Since only small amounts can be absorbed through the skin, the greatest risk of exposure is from drinking contaminated water.
According to an investigation by The Colorado Springs Gazette, Defense Department studies dating back to the 1970s indicated that the substances were harmful to laboratory animals. In 1991, Army bases were instructed by The Army Corps of Engineers to stop using firefighting foam, as it was harmful to the environment.
A growing movement of veterans and others demanded that state and military officials undergo blood tests. They hope to find out the extent of the chemicals' presence in their bodies and bring results to their doctors or use them in lawsuits.
The military said that not enough is known about the chemicals and the results would not be useful, so it has denied their requests. Instead, it will pay for population-based health studies conducted by the CDC. Frustration also persists because the military has left many people in the dark by not alerting all of the communities where the water is polluted.
The military has started major cleanup efforts by assessing toxic plumes and shifting entire municipalities to new water sources.