America’s longest war, Afghanistan, recently came to an abrupt end but the problems left behind are just beginning.
Over the course of two decades, the US military has operated in country establishing and maintaining several bases, air fields and facilities, or adding new ones. As part of these facilities, hangars and other areas utilized the same fire suppression equipment and chemicals found on almost 700 bases within the United States: aqueous film-forming foams containing PFAS.
From the start of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military and its contractors have burned solid waste every day in open burn pits on or near military bases.GAO-11-63 Report: ‘Afghanistan and Iraq: DOD Should Improve Adherence to Its Guidance on Open Pit Burning and Solid Waste Management’
Why is this important? Because of the substances typically burned, firefighting foam made of PFAS has been incinerated and continues to be. According to a 2010 GAO report:
Open pit burning is the most prevalent waste disposal method in both conflicts, and operators of burn pits have not always followed relevant guidance to protect servicemembers from exposure to harmful emissions. According to DOD, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq generate about 10 pounds of non-hazardous solid waste per soldier each day. The military has relied on open pit burning to dispose of this waste mainly because of its expedience. In August 2010, CENTCOM estimated there were 221 burn pits in Afghanistan and 22 in Iraq. CENTCOM officials said the number of burn pits is increasing in Afghanistan and decreasing in Iraq, which reflects U.S. troop reallocations and efforts to install waste incinerators.GAO-11-63 (2010)
The DOD has been burning a lot of things, and one of those most dangerous to the environment and health are PFAS foams. And the DOD has no plans to stop. In fact, it’s planning to push ahead with more burning of accumulated firefighting foams containing carcinogenic PFAS. According to a 2019 report from the Intercept, “more than 3 million gallons of the foam and related waste have been retrieved from U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, National Guard, Army, and Air Force bases around the world.”
PFAS is operationalized within the military for the following uses:
- 1st Response Rescue Operations
- Airports and Aircraft Hangars
- Public Buildings
- Heliport and Helideck Fire Protection
- Fuel Transport Locations
- Refinery and Petrochemical Sites
- Coal Mines on Special Response Vehicles
- Frack Tank Fire Protection
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)
Present in firefighting foams used by both civilian and military firefighters, they are known as “forever chemicals” due to their persistence in the environment or in the human body. They do not break down.
In the 1970s, the Department of Defense began using AFFF to fight fuel fires. The release of these chemicals into the environment during training and emergency responses is a major source of PFAS contamination of ground water on military bases.Veterans Affairs (VA)
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 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.
In Afghanistan, these military bases have been handed over to Afghan National Security Forces, and most likely are now in the hands of the Taliban. But so are the environmental and health issues that come with them. Many of these facilities, as part of standard operating procedure, generated tons of waste, including substances that increase the reisk of cancer and other diseases, notably PFAS.
These materials can produce long-lasting environmental hazards in and around such sites as they seep into the ground, remain exposed in uncovered landfills and—when some items are incinerated—drift into the air as smoke particles.Scientific American
In fact, according to a 2013 digital report on the US Army’s news website, the base at Kandahar had plenty of hangars equipped with fire suppression systems utilizing PFAS-laden foams. And they released PFAS heavily not due to fires or incidents, but because the DOD has a rule that all fire suppression systems in certain hangers require mandatory performance tests before aircraft can even be stored or maintained in them. All of these tests involved large amounts of foam released. One account speaks, proudly, of the amount of foam present for such tests.
The hangers filled with foam to a depth of almost seven feet in about two minutes.US Army
Disposal of PFAS is even trickier. Although incineration is the military’s chosen disposal method, there has been little research on the safety of burning the foam. While two studies concluded that the incineration of PFAS chemicals would not be a source of further contamination, both studies have a big caveat. Both were funded by companies with a vested interest in making the problem go away. These include funding from DuPont and 3M. 3M has had a partnership with the Navy since the 1960s to be the exclusive supplier of PFAS-laden aqueous film-forming foams for firefighting needs. But some of the scant research on the topic suggests that incineration may not fully destroy PFAS. (The Intercept)
Back here at home, DOD continues to contract facilities for incineration of the millions of gallons of excess AFFF. And they’re using questionable facilities, with oft inadequate burn protocols, to do it. And the violations are out of this world. To adequately cover this issue requires a completely separate, in-depth report coming soon.
Also, due to a variety of legal and practical hurdles, cleaning up burn pits and other chemicals left behind abroad is also a big problem. These sites can leave behind substantial chemicals and cancer-causing agents. The burning of everything from paint to metal, plastics, medical and human waste, and unexploded ordnance leaves behind a smoke that is unmistakeably toxic. Such smoke is known to contain “particulate matter, lead, mercury, dioxins and irritant gases”, as outlined in a 2014 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). (Scientific American)
Inhaling these contaminants “can negatively affect organs and body systems, such as the adrenal glands, lungs, liver, and stomach,” causing conditions that include asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis.Scientific American and Veterans Affairs (VA)
The health impacts are hardly limited to uniformed personnel. As the American Public Health Association noted in a statement in 2015,
This is also true of consistent, high-volume discharges of PFAS into the environment. Even if use is limited to rare fuel, aviation or other fires, the use of AFFF containing PFAS also comes from routine maintenance and testing of hangar suppression systems, or frequent outdoor firefighter training. The chemicals are absorbed into the soil and remain there…eventually migrating into nearby wells, acquifers or other water sources via runoff.
The health issues have already begun, with some alarming reports already coming out of Afghanistan from various doctors in country. According to Dr. Mustafa Siddiqui, a health specialist from Kabul,
“People living near the military base in Bagram are coughing up blood, find it difficult to breathe, and have problems with their kidneys and livers.”Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Steven Markowitz, professor of environmental sciences at Queens College, City University of New York, says U.S. soldiers returning from Afghanistan are also showing significant increases in respiratory problems. He attributes this to the soldiers being exposed to open burn pits at Bagram and other U.S. military bases.
“If we know American soldiers are being affected, then we know it is quite possible for local laborers on bases and the local population to be affected,” Markowitz says.Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty
Cleaning up military bases within the US has been a slow, tedious and mammoth undertaking. The difficulty goes to an entirely new level overseas. In the case of Afghanistan, legal obstacles and the need for diplomacy with a foreign government often hinder efforts. And at the moment, there is no relationship between the US government and the new Taliban-led Afghan government. Therefore, no coordination exists to address the impending health crisis that will ultimately develop over time for citizens of Afghanistan.
In fact, the DOD has specific rules prohibiting money or resources to be directed to cleanup of bases on foreign soil.
The U.S. can fund the remediation of environmental hazards at its bases only while they are in use: when the military withdraws from a base, a specific rule prohibits the DOD from directly spending money or using its resources “to meet requirements that are the responsibility of host nations, as stipulated in applicable international agreements.”Scientific American
That’s very convenient for the Department of Defense, isn’t it?
“What happens when environmental damage occurs and a host nation or local national does not have the leverage or resources to demand compensation or demand mitigation from the U.S. military?” wrote Jennifer Neuhauser, then a judge advocate at the U.S. Army, in a 2015 paper. With a hostile power now in possession of these sites, the U.S. is unlikely to participate in local cleanup efforts. As Neuhauser stated in her paper, “There are very few enforcement mechanisms under international law to compel U.S. forces to resolve these issues.”Scientific American
Excellent questions. The answer to that question is the very same answer at home. As with most contaminated bases around the United States, they’re in no hurry. DOD is not compelled to do anything, other than perhaps quickly and quietly incinerating the evidence of their ongoing, systemic pollution.
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