Contaminated Drinking Water Found at 90 More Army, Guard Bases

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Firefighters assigned to the 673d Civil Engineer Squadron train during the foam test at Hangar 18 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Aug. 31, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Caitlin Russell)
Firefighters assigned to the 673d Civil Engineer Squadron train during the foam test at Hangar 18 on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Aug. 31, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo/Caitlin Russell)

The drinking water at 90 Army, Army Reserve and Army National Guard posts is contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS chemicals, linked to birth defects and certain cancers, according to a new report from the service.

The additions bring the number of Army installations contaminated with chemicals contained in firefighting foam, stain-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware and other products from 18 to 108, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

According to the report, highest levels of PFAS were found at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, followed by the National Guard's Joint Training Base in Los Alamitos, California, and Belmont Armory in Michigan.

The findings raise concerns that service members and their families are being exposed to chemicals that accumulate over a lifetime and can have serious health consequences, said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG, in an interview with Military.com.

Related: New Pentagon Task Force to Address Cleanup at PFAS-Contaminated Bases

"We still don't know how many decades service members and their families have been drinking contaminated water," Faber said, adding that the recent list only contains information from 2016 to 2018. "These detections raise more questions than they provide answers."

In their response to EWG, Army officials said they have tested all installation drinking water and fixed any system found to have levels above the Environmental Protection Agency's "lifetime health advisory" limit, 70 parts per trillion, or PPT.

"There are currently no Army personnel or families drinking water with levels of [PFAS] above the [lifetime health advisory]," wrote Department of the Army Senior Counsel Paul DeAgostino.

Military installations have used firefighting foams containing PFAS chemicals for decades. The chemicals also are found in hundreds of consumer products and have been linked to infertility, immune system disorders, developmental delays in children and some types of cancer.

A quarter of all Americans have unsafe levels of PFAS chemicals in their blood due to exposures from industrial waste, household products and proximity to military installations, Faber said.

The list issued Tuesday brings the number of documented contaminated bases to 297, but that is expected to rise with the release of reports from the other military services, also requested by EWG through the Freedom of Information Act.

The Army has been testing bases to ensure that installation water supplies do not exceed the 70 PPT recommendations. In some cases, the services have supplied bottled water and in-home water filtration systems to base residents to ensure the quality of their drinking water.

But the EWG feels the Defense Department should be doing more, as the 70 parts-per-trillion lifetime health advisory is a guideline that is 70 times higher than the 1 part per trillion level it considers safe, based on independent studies.

"EWG scientists and other experts think that 1 PPT is a better threshold based on studies linking exposure to PFAS with decreased effectiveness of childhood vaccines and effects on mammary gland development, which were not considered when EPA developed its Lifetime Health Advisory," explained Melanie Benesh, an EWG legislative attorney.

"Because many PFAS chemicals build up in the body, even very low concentrations in drinking water can increase the risks of serious health problems," EWG Senior Scientist Dave Andrews said in a news release.

In July, Defense Secretary Mark Esper created a task force to address issues related to PFAS chemicals, formed to develop a better understanding of the health consequences of exposure; make plans for researching and using PFAS-free firefighting foams; and establish standards for exposure and environmental cleanup.

Members of Congress also are tackling the issue: The House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2020 defense policy bill include listing PFAS as dangerous chemicals and banning the use of firefighting foams containing PFAS.

An initial draft of the Senate defense funding bill allots more than $29 million for PFAS remediation at various bases.

But Faber said the legislative bodies should be doing more.

"Enough is enough. We don't need more meetings or memos to let us know that PFAS are hazardous," he said. "It's time to designate PFAS as a hazardous substance under the Superfund law. That would ensure cleanup and payment by those responsible."

The Defense Department PFAS Task Force is expected to release some of its preliminary findings on Thursday.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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