A recent and growing concern within the US military system, the use of PFAS has caused quite a problem. Contamination on military bases with PFAS has been prolific, as the chemical is primarily used and found on bases in AFFF (Aqueous Film Forming Foam) used at air bases for fire suppression. From automated suppression systems in hangars to basic firefighting use, AFFF has been predominant for some time.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are manmade chemicals found in many industrial and consumer products because they increase resistance to heat, stains, water and grease. Uses include keeping food from sticking to cookware, making sofas and carpets resistant to stains, and making clothes and mattresses more waterproof. (Defense.gov)
PFAS can be found in:
- Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
- Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
- Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
- Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
- Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.
They are also present in fire-fighting foams (or aqueous film forming foam; AFFF) used by both civilian and military firefighters. They are persistent and do not break down in the environment, and have widespread use internationally. Their persistence has earned them the nickname “forever chemicals”.
PFAS in the foam is the problem, and the indiscriminate dumping of the chemical has caused concerns. Testing of suppression systems have included flooding hangars full of the foam, and that foam is left to dissipate into the surface and in runoff. As of March 31, 2021, the Department of Defense had readily identified 698 installations where PFAS was in use or potentially released.
Of the 698 bases involved to date, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has so far confirmed PFAS in the tap water or groundwater at 328 of these military installations. At 14 installations, concentrations of PFAS were above 1 million parts per trillion (ppt), well above the 70ppt advisory set by the EPA.
The highest known contamination was seen at the former England Air Force Base, near Alexandria, Louisiana, that measured 20.7 million parts per trillion of a PFAS chemical known as PFHxS. (Military Times)
It is also important to note that the EPA’s 70ppt limit is a non-enforceable limit.
Pentagon officials have understood the risks of AFFF since the early 1970s, when Navy and Air Force studies first showed it was toxic to fish. In the early 1980s, the Air Force conducted its own animal studies on AFFF, and in the early 2000s, the maker of the fluorinated chemical PFOS, the main ingredient in AFFF, exited the market. In 2001, a Defense Department memo concluded that the main ingredient in AFFF was “persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic.”Environmental Working Group
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ASTDR), some studies in humans suggest that certain PFAS may be associated with:
- Fertility issues and pregnancy-induced hypertension/preeclampsia
- Increased cholesterol
- Changes in the immune system
- Increased risk of certain cancers (e.g., testicular and kidney cancer)
- Changes in fetal and child development
- Liver damage
- Increased risk of thyroid disease
- Increased risk of asthma
“PFAS contaminate the blood of every American and have been linked to very serious health problems, says Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “The Pentagon’s use of aqueous film forming foam has disproportionately exposed military service members and their families and nearby communities to higher levels of PFAS pollution.”Military.com
PFAS are absorbed (usually through ingestion, inhalation or absorption), and can accumulate in the body. PFAS stay in the human body for long periods of time and those exposed to PFAS may see levels increase to the point where they suffer from adverse health effects.
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