• Majority of domestic US military sites leaking PFAS into environment

PFAS Analysis

Majority of domestic US military sites leaking PFAS into environment

Nov 11 2023

The United States, a nation that prides itself on security and public welfare, faces an internal environmental crisis of significant proportions. Recent reports have unveiled a disconcerting scenario wherein an array of U.S. Army bases have become inadvertent conduits of contamination, leaching hazardous chemicals into local water supplies. This crisis predominantly involves the pervasive infiltration of PFAS—Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—into the drinking water of communities neighbouring at least 245 military sites, as identified in a Department of Defence (DoD) report. The alarming part, however, is that these figures only represent about one-third of the investigations needed, suggesting the potential for a much wider impact. 

PFAS compounds, encompassing a class of about 9,000 distinct chemicals, are notoriously persistent in the environment—earning them the epithet of 'forever chemicals.' They are prevalent in a plethora of consumer goods, valued for their ability to repel oil, water, and stains. However, these attributes also mean PFAS do not easily degrade, leading to their accumulation in the environment and living organisms, including humans. The health implications are grave, with PFAS exposure being linked to cancer, liver damage, thyroid disease, developmental issues, and a range of other debilitating conditions. 

Despite the DoD's recognition of PFAS pollution, critical details such as affected areas, specific PFAS levels, and the ensuing health risks remain shrouded in ambiguity. This withholding of information has provoked widespread consternation among public health experts and local populations, who are demanding transparency and immediate action to mitigate the risks. 

The genesis of this widespread PFAS contamination can be traced to the military's extensive employment of firefighting foams that are laced with these chemicals. These foams, utilized extensively during emergency incidents and routine training exercises, have led to PFAS permeating the groundwater in and around military bases. In certain instances, the levels of PFAS detected in groundwater samples have been found to be millions of parts per trillion (ppt)—a stark contrast to the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) advisory level that suggests concentrations above one ppt may be potentially unsafe. 

Recent legislative efforts have compelled the DoD to probe into the full extent of PFAS pollution. Out of the 455 bases with confirmed PFAS presence, an overwhelming majority are located near drinking water sources, threatening the health of countless Americans. Terms such as "in the proximity" of drinking water supplies are left ill-defined by the report, stirring further apprehension amongst community members regarding their safety. 

In response to these findings, the DoD has initiated measures to provide clean drinking water to some affected communities, targeting areas where PFOA and PFOS—the two most infamous PFAS compounds—exceed 70 ppt. However, with the EPA poised to lower this threshold to 4 ppt, the military's obligation to offer clean water might expand dramatically, stretching already strained resources. 

Amidst increasing public scrutiny, it is evident that the measures taken to date are not sufficient. The DoD's remediation budget is reported to be on the decline, even as the list of contaminated sites continues to grow. This is particularly disquieting when considering that the health of around 175,000 service members—based on an internal study—is potentially at risk from drinking contaminated water annually. 

The crisis transcends the military's rank and file to encompass the wider civilian populace. The revelation that contaminated water sources also serve surrounding communities underscores the depth of the problem. Legislative directives have been established, mandating the DoD to phase out the use of PFAS-rich firefighting foams and seek safer alternatives. However, these efforts are nascent and the complete eradication of PFAS from the military's operational materials remains a formidable challenge. 

The financial and environmental costs of addressing the PFAS contamination are expected to be substantial. Estimates suggest that the actual expenditures for cleanup operations will far exceed initial allocations, indicating a long and arduous road ahead for environmental restoration efforts. 

The PFAS contamination issue is a national crisis with implications that reverberate on an international scale. The urgency for decisive action cannot be overstated as communities in the vicinity of these military bases anxiously await not only remediation but also a full disclosure of the potential impact of this contamination. There is a pressing need for transparency, comprehensive investigation, and significant investment in environmental recovery initiatives. 

The unfolding narrative of PFAS contamination is a stern reminder that the pursuit of national defence should not compromise the health and safety of the nation's citizens. As the military endeavours to resolve this crisis, a shift is required—from being perceived as a 'bad neighbour' to becoming a proactive guardian of the environment. The safeguarding of water resources and the well-being of communities must take precedence in the military's operational protocols. It is an imperative that echoes the foundational values of the nation: to protect and enhance the quality of life for all its inhabitants, for today and the years to come. 


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IET 34.2 March 2024

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