Military Firefighters Say DoD Isn’t Moving Fast Enough to Protect Them from Toxic Chemicals

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USS Boxer Aqueous Film Forming Foam
Sailors assigned to the amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4), clean the ship's flight deck with Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), March 26, 2007. (U.S. Navy photo/James Seward)

An amendment to the House and Senate defense policy bills would require the Pentagon to provide blood tests for any service member suspected to have been exposed to chemicals used in most firefighting foams, as well as non-stick industrial coatings and stain repellent.

But the Department of Defense has yet to begin testing firefighters for these substances, which fall under the class of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They are required to do so by Oct. 1 under last year's National Defense Authorization Act.

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Military firefighters say they are glad lawmakers are now considering the dangers of the chemicals, which have been linked to certain types of cancer, birth defects and other health issues. But they don't feel that the Pentagon is moving fast enough to monitor their exposure levels.

"Being a DoD firefighter for 14 years, I know I've been covered in that stuff ... what has been done for all us firefighters?" said a service member, who requested that his name not be used because he remains on active duty and fears retaliation.

The fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act called for DoD to begin blood testing on military firefighters to determine their exposure levels to PFOS and PFOA.

A Defense Health Agency spokesman said DoD is currently developing the procedures for testing the thousands of current firefighters serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

"We are actively developing policy and procedures to provide blood testing to determine and document potential occupational exposure to perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances for each firefighter of the Department of Defense during the annual occupational medical examination conducted by the department for each firefighter," a DHA official said on background, because he was not authorized to speak for the agency.

The House and Senate versions of the national defense policy bill contain at least 10 different measures to regulate PFAS, from providing funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to improving research on the chemicals and prohibiting DoD from buying certain products containing PFAS, and barring DoD from incinerating PFAS products.

The amendment, proposed by Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., would ensure that periodic health assessments on service members include an evaluation of potential exposure to PFAS as well as blood tests for those potentially exposed and inclusion in medical records.

Haaland told Military.com that testing would help DoD understand the extent of PFAS chemicals' impact on service members.

"The health and safety of our military families is important, but harmful chemicals put them at risk. I've seen what happens to the health of family and friends when toxic sites are not cleaned up, and it's not something we should risk," Haaland said.

In the Senate, several provisions also have been introduced as part of the chamber's version of the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization bill, including one from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., that support testing and Tricare coverage for PFAS exposure among service members and families.

Shaheen also has proposed that DoD and VA develop a national database, or registry, of service members and veterans with PFAS-related health conditions.

An amendment from Shaheen also would designate the key PFAS chemicals in firefighting foams hazardous by law. Amendments from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who proposes prohibiting DoD from incinerating PFAS chemicals, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who wants to bar the Defense Logistics Agency from buying certain products containing PFAS, both have similar measures in the House bill, increasing the likelihood that they will be in the final version of the bill.

Advocacy groups praised the lawmakers for supporting the measures but some members of Congress said some proposals go too far.

Scott Faber, vice president of the Environmental Working Group, which tracks contamination across the country, said the proposals build on progress from last year.

"Our military service members risk everything to keep us safe," Faber said. "We should do everything we can to protect service members from toxic chemicals like PFAS, which contaminate the groundwater of hundreds of DOD installations."

"Our best strategy is to stop the use of PFAS at its source -- in products. This legislation does exactly that by instructing the military to stop purchasing products -- furniture, carpeting, and even dental floss--containing these harmful chemicals," said Arlene Blum, executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute.

During debate in the House, however, some members of Congress took issue with an amendment by Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., to force DoD to clean up contamination to standards set by state or federal governments, whichever is strictest.

Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colorado, called the measure "a bridge too far."

"I appreciate the intention behind this amendment ... but EPA is taking steps. I think they are taking rational and major steps according to science. Measures like this go beyond what science has determined," Lamborn said.

According to the Environmental Working Group, 678 active and former defense sites are contaminated or have had suspect discharges of PFAS compounds.

Many non-military communities are also contaminated from PFAS from industrial use and production. The chemicals, which are referred to as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down and currently can't be destroyed, have been used for decades in military training and emergencies.

Congress has called for DoD to limit its use of aqueous film forming foams containing PFAS and phase them out within five years. According to DoD, the military services now only use the foam on land during actual emergencies, but they remain the most effective tool for fighting fires on ships.

DoD officials have been working with private industry and conducting research on potential replacements for the PFAS foam, but a solution remains elusive.

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

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

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