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Fluorinated Chemicals Taint Water at Scores of Military Bases, Neighboring Communities: DOD Discloses Locations for First Time

Health + Wellness
An off-base public water system near the Fairchild AFB in Washington state was taken off line and residents were given bottled water after testing showed high levels of DFAs. Joe Mabel / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The Defense Department has for the first time disclosed the locations of military installations where tap water or groundwater on or off base is contaminated with highly toxic fluorinated chemicals. But the list is incomplete, naming only locations where water is polluted above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) "safe" level for tap water, which is well above levels found safe by independent scientists and regulations in a growing number of states.


In a report to the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon listed 36 installations in 23 states and territories, as well as in five nations overseas, where tests found on-base drinking water contamination exceeding the EPA's lifetime health advisory for the fluorinated compounds PFOS and PFOA. In addition, the Pentagon identified 90 U.S. installations where PFOS or PFOA released on-base has contaminated groundwater. In many of these places, the contaminated water has migrated off-site, polluting nearby communities' tap water with fluorinated chemicals in concentrations above the EPA advisory level.

Maureen Sullivan, a deputy assistant secretary of defense, provided the list to the Armed Services Committee in March. It was first reported April 27 by The Military Times, which said the list includes 50 Air Force bases, 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases, 25 Army bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites. Some of the bases on the list are now closed and have been converted to civilian uses.

The disclosure adds to the rapidly expanding number of known sites of fluorinated chemical contamination. Last month, the latest update of an interactive map from EWG and Northeastern University detailed fluorinated chemical contamination at 94 military or industrial sites in 22 states, and in public water systems serving 16.1 million Americans in 33 states and Puerto Rico. Those locations overlap with an undetermined number of sites on the Pentagon's list, which will be added to the map as more information becomes available.

The EPA's advisory level is 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, for the combined level of PFOS and PFOA, but it is not an enforceable legal limit. New Jersey recently set the nation's lowest legal limit for PFOA in tap water, 14 ppt, which is expected to take effect next year. In 2016, Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Richard Clapp of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell published research concluding that an approximate safe dose of PFOA and/or PFOS in drinking water is 1 ppt.

PFOS and PFOA are the two most notorious members of the chemical family of thousands of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. They have been linked to several types of cancer, thyroid disease, weakened childhood immunity and other health problems. They were phased out under pressure from the EPA after revelations that their manufacturers covered up evidence of their environmental and health hazards, and they are now banned in the U.S.

PFOS and PFOA were used for decades in hundreds of consumer products such as 3M's Scotchgard and DuPont's Teflon, but also in the firefighting foam used at military and civilian airports. The military is switching out firefighting foam with PFOS or PFOA, but is substituting foam that contains other fluorinated compounds whose chemical structures are very similar and that may be just as hazardous.

The Military Times reported that Sullivan told the committee the Defense Department had moved quickly to shut down wells, install water filters and/or provide bottled water at the 24 contaminated bases where the military is the drinking water supplier. But because the EPA advisory level is not an enforceable standard, fixing the problem is moving slower at the 12 contaminated bases where a local utility or private contractor supplies the water.

Sullivan told The Military Times that addressing the groundwater contamination will take even longer and cost billions of dollars, but the presentation to the committee said that process can't proceed until the EPA sets an enforceable cleanup standard.

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