In one of his first official acts, Defense Secretary Mark Esper ordered the creation of a new task force to address Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances, or PFAS, chemicals in firefighting foam that have contaminated more than 400 military bases and may be linked to cancer and a number of other medical conditions.
In a memo signed Wednesday, Esper said the task force will be chaired by the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, a position currently filled by retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert McMahon, and staffed by Pentagon counterparts at the assistant secretary level.
"Release of [PFAS] into the environment is a topic of growing concern," Esper wrote in his memo. " ... The Department is committed to taking a strong and proactive stance to address the effects arising out of any release of these substances from all defense activities including the National Guard and Reserves. We must approach the problem in an aggressive and holistic way, ensuring a coordinated DoD-wide approach to this issue."
The task force was ordered to make a report on its composition and mission within 30 days and to provide an update to Esper within 180 days on its progress.
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According to the memo, the primary focus areas for the task force include health aspects of PFAS contamination; cleanup standards and performance; finding and funding an effective PFAS-free firefighting foam; science-supported standards for exposure and cleanup; interagency coordination; and perception of the Defense Department's efforts on the matter from the public and Congress.
A 2018 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists found extreme groundwater contamination -- more than 100 times the limit considered safe for PFAS -- at 87 out of 131 military sites surveyed. Another 43 sites were found to have "significant" contamination, at levels of 1 to 100 times the safe limit. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry under the Centers for Disease Control found that PFAS exposure may lower a woman's chance of pregnancy; affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and children; and increase the risk of cancer, among other things.
According to a report from the Environmental Working Group, the military has only gradually worked to phase out use of the aqueous firefighting foam containing PFAS, despite evidence dating from the 1970s that the chemicals are toxic and linked to elevated cancer risk. The Air Force stopped using the foam last June, and the Army expects to follow suit this year. The Navy, which uses the foam on ships, where other firefighting methods are less practical, is expected to complete its phase-out of its current formula in 2020.
In a 2018 report to Congress obtained by Military Times, the DoD acknowledged 126 installations where levels of perfluorinated compounds are potentially harmful.
"Limited human studies show [the compounds] may be associated with developmental delays in fetuses & children; decreased fertility; increased cholesterol; changes to the immune system; increased uric acid levels; changes in liver enzymes; and prostate, kidney and testicular cancer," the report found.
In a briefing with reporters Wednesday, Esper said he wants the Pentagon to "follow the science" on the PFAS issue. He indicated he isn't ready yet to determine how to deal with the thousands of veterans who may have become ill from exposure to contaminated drinking water.
"One of the agencies we should talk with is [the Department of Veterans Affairs]," he said. "We need to make sure we understand this problem and have our hands fully around it."