DoD Put Troops and Families at Risk with Slow Response to 'Forever Chemicals,' Report Finds

Firefighters work to extinguish a simulated engine fire at Cannon Air Force Base.
FILE -- In this file photo, firefighters work to extinguish a simulated engine fire at Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico, Aug. 2, 2012. Chemicals associated with firefighting foam once used at the base have been detected in groundwater. (Eboni Prince/U.S. Air Force)

The Defense Department waited five years to take action after being warned of the dangers of chemicals used in firefighting foams and elsewhere on military installations, possibly exposing "people and the environment" to preventable risks, a Pentagon audit has found.

The DoD's Emerging Chemical Program issued an alert to Pentagon leadership in 2011 on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, highlighting the risks of exposure to DoD personnel, including firefighters and other employees.

As a result of a bureaucratic glitch, however, the DoD was not required to take any actions to address the risks until 2016, allowing years to pass while troops continued to be exposed to PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foams, or AFFF, used in firefighting, and other industrial compounds, according to a DoD Inspector General's report released July 22.

That delay -- and a subsequent focus on firefighting foams while largely ignoring other sources -- have continued to expose personnel to the dangerous substances, the report found.

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The IG also determined that, while the DoD is required by the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to test military firefighters for exposure to PFAS, it doesn't have plans to effectively track or analyze the data, leaving an extensive gap in knowledge that could help reduce risks in the future, the IG noted.

"The DoD is missing an opportunity to capture comprehensive PFAS exposure data for DoD firefighters to be used for risk management, including future studies to assess long‑term health effects relating to PFAS exposure," the report says.

Concern has grown in the past decade over PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and birth defects. They are known as "forever chemicals" because they do not break down in the environment and can build up in the human body.

The compounds are used not only in firefighting foam but in industrial lubricants, non-stick cookware, cosmetics, stain repellents and food wrappers.

Firefighting foams containing PFAS have been used on military installations since the early 1970s, with thousands of people exposed during training and emergencies and an unknown number possibly exposed as the result of runoff.

The DoD has identified at least 650 active or former military bases where perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid may have been used or released into the environment.

The Pentagon established a task force in July 2019 to study the health effects of PFAS and find a safer alternative to firefighting foams containing the chemicals. It has banned their use for training on military installations, although foam containing the chemicals is still used on ships and during emergencies.

The IG began reviewing the use of PFAS products on military installations following a request from 31 members of Congress in July 2019.

Following the paper's release, Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., who led the congressional request, said it proves that the Pentagon must "do more to protect service members and their families."

"Due to the Defense Department's use of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, many service members, military firefighters and their families are still at risk of exposure," Kildee said in a statement released by the Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization that tracks PFAS contamination in the U.S.

"This report should alarm our service members and their families," said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environmental Working Group. "DoD understood the health risks posed by toxic PFAS for decades but failed to act to protect service members.

Both the Senate and the House this year have included provisions in their defense policy and spending bills to fund PFAS cleanup.

The Senate Armed Services Committee's draft of the fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act would require the DoD to test all installations for suspected PFAS contamination by 2023 and develop a schedule for cleaning it up, while the House has passed legislation that would provide funds for cleanup and health care for affected veterans.

The DoD IG made three recommendations to the department to improve PFAS monitoring, oversight and cleanup. They include formulating directions for the DoD's Emerging Chemical

Program to start risk management efforts; assessing the risk of exposure from products other than firefighting foams; and improving data collection from firefighters.

In response to the report, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Paul Cramer said risk management efforts will be developed next year, and Thomas Constable, assistant secretary of defense for readiness, said the results of blood testing for firefighters will be shared with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

The DoD also plans to analyze the results to set exposure limits -- research that could take more than four years, according to Constable.

In a statement, Kildee said the changes can't come fast enough.

"It's long past time for the Defense Department to stop using dangerous PFAS chemicals," he said.

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

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