The Department of Defense (DOD) has underestimated how many U.S. service members were exposed to potentially unsafe levels of forever chemicals in the drinking water served on military installations, a new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has found.
While the DOD put the number of exposed service members at 175,000 a year at 24 bases, the EWG said the number was closer to more than 600,000 at 116 military installations.
“The Department of Defense is trying to downplay these risks rather than aggressively seeking to notify service members and clean up its legacy pollution,” EWG senior vice president of government affairs Scott Faber told The Guardian. “It has [a] long history of looking the other way when it comes to PFAS pollution.”
PFAS — or per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are an environmental toxin infamous for their resistance to breaking down and their persistence in the environment and the human body. They have been popular with industry since the 1940s for a number of uses including stain-, heat-, and water-resistant products. They are also an active ingredient in Aqueous Film Forming Foam, and the military’s reliance on this foam is a major reason why U.S. military bases have some of the highest PFAS concentrations in the country, according to The War Horse. This is bad news for the health of service members, because PFAS exposure has been linked to everything from cancer to immune suppression to reproductive issues.
For example, Kendall Brock was diagnosed with stage four bladder cancer after serving for 35 years as a member of the Air National Guard at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. Two years before his diagnosis, the groundwater at the base had tested positive for PFAS.
“If you think that you’ve drank the water, and washed in it, and ate food that you cooked in it, for years and years — and you know about this — it’s pretty scary,” his wife Doris told The War Horse. “It’s scary as hell.”
In 2019, Congress ordered the DOD to report on the potential health impacts of PFAS exposure for active service members and veterans as part of that year’s National Defense Authorization Act. However, EWG noted that the report, released in April, has several flaws:
- Outdated safety standards: The DOD based its calculations on exposure to PFOA and PFOS — two of the most well-known PFAS — on the 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory safety limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). This led it to conclude that 24 installations serve their residents contaminated drinking water. However, when the report was released, the EPA was in the process of updating its advisory safety levels to near zero ppt. While the update was released in June — two months after the DOD report — Faber told The Guardian that the DOD was aware of the upcoming changes and likely published the report early so as not to have to accommodate them. Taking the EPA’s new safety limits into account, EWG came up with a calculation of more than 640,000 service members exposed at at least 116 installations.
- Incomplete Analysis: Even if you accept the 70 ppt safety limit, the DOD underestimated exposure. It excluded at least four bases from its report where levels higher than 70 ppt had been detected in the drinking water before the report was released: Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey; Yakima Training Center, Washington; and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
- Limited Timeline: The DOD figure of 175,000 only accounts for how many people might be drinking the contaminated water at the bases currently. It does not consider everyone who has lived and worked at the bases between now and at least the 1970s, when the firefighting foam began to be used, nor does it account for the fact that service members often move between bases.
- Incomplete Health Assessment: The report did not consider all the potential health impacts of PFAS, including that PFOA and PFOS have been linked to testicular and kidney cancer. What’s more, they did not consider the impact of PFAS-exposure on pregnant people and babies, despite the fact that around 13,000 active service members give birth each year, according to the DOD’s own statistics.
It wasn’t only the content of the report that Faber criticized, according to The Guardian. It was also the fact that it was never published on the DOD’s PFAS website, meaning service members or other members of the public who want to view it need to request it from the department.
“That’s the part that ought to bother every American,” Faber said. “It’s not just that they purposefully underestimated how many service members were exposed… it’s that they didn’t tell anyone.”