- Kaylin Lemajeur
Streamline: PFAS on Military Bases: A Brief Overview
PFAS or “forever chemicals'' have gained coverage in the news in recent years and have even been highlighted in popular culture with movies such as Dark Waters, but many people still lack awareness of how these chemicals come into play in our everyday lives and the harms they pose to our communities and wellbeing. This article aims to give a general background on PFAS, draw particular attention to the harmful presence of these compounds on military bases, and highlight Water&’s recent campaign efforts surrounding groundwater contamination.
Background on PFAS
PFAS is an abbreviation for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS are human-made compounds that are used in a variety of products such as non-stick cookware, food packaging, water-repellent clothing, and firefighting foams (CBS News). Firefighting foams are often used in training exercises on military bases (CBS News), leading to PFAS contamination.
PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” due to their inability to be broken down by the human body or the environment (CBS News). PFAS can be found in the blood of most Americans, and the presence of PFAS in humans has been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, changes in liver enzymes, decreased fertility, increased cholesterol levels, and more (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry).
PFAS on Military Bases
At least 385 military installations across the nation have been contaminated by PFAS, with these toxic chemicals contaminating groundwater around at least six military sites in the Great Lakes region (CBS News). Additionally, PFAS are suspected to be present on hundreds of more bases (CBS News) which is concerning for anyone relying on groundwater in these confirmed or suspected areas.
The Environmental Protection Agency has a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA, two of the most commonly used forever chemicals (CBS News). However, at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station in New York, combined levels of PFOS and PFOA have reached as high as 1.3 million parts per trillion (CBS News), drastically exceeding the EPA’s health advisory level. The Biden administration is working to develop national standards to initiate PFAS cleanup, but cleanup requirements on military bases may take years to define, decades to complete the cleanups, and have been estimated to cost around $2 billion (CBS News).
Although these standards may be costly as well as time intensive to develop and implement, forever chemicals are a serious threat to the health of US service members and their families, and it is critical that actions be taken to address this alarming problem. Many service members are required to live on base for their work and the contaminated groundwater there is what they have available. The Department of Defense has notified 2,100 farms near 95 military bases that their irrigation Water may be contaminated with PFAS and in turn their crops and livestock are at risk of contamination (Hayes 2021), making this a far-reaching issue. Other analyses have revealed that nearby farmers of 36 military bases with some of the highest PFAS contamination levels have not been notified that their Water may be contaminated, emphasizing the inadequacy of current actions on PFAS and a need for enforcement of notification requirements in addition to cleanup efforts and regulations.
PFAS have been linked to a variety of cancers and diseases (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry), and by not initiating cleanup efforts and taking preventative action, US service members, their families, and others living near these bases are being subjected to these health threats.
Education & Advocacy
March 22, 2022 is World Water Day, and this year’s theme is “Groundwater: Making the Invisible Visible”. Water& partnered with the Michigan-based organization FLOW to launch an interdisciplinary art, research, and political advocacy campaign on forever chemicals to raise awareness about their impacts on our Water and advocate for policy reform around PFAS. Water& is endorsing a two bill groundwater contamination package in the Michigan Senate, SB 676 and 677. An op-ed that provides further details on this bill package and our endorsement can be found here.
Water& is dedicated to protecting Water and human health. Water& will continue to raise awareness and advocate for clean and accessible Water for all through art, research, and advocacy efforts.
Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (2022). Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in the US Populations. Center for Disease Control). https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/docs/PFAS_in_People.pdf
CBS News (2021). Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ Found in More Groundwater Near Military Bases. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/pfas-forever-chemicals-groundwater-us-military-bases/
Hayes, J. (2021). Forever Chemicals from Military Bases May Be Lurking in Agricultural Supplies. EWG. https://www.ewg.org/news-insights/news/2021/10/forever-chemicals-military-bases-may-be-lurking-agricultural-water