After Years of Delays, Congress Prepares 2-Year Deadline for Pentagon to Finish Testing for ‘Forever Chemicals’

Foams once used routinely in firefighting training at military bases contained per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
In this Aug. 1, 2018, photo shown on the former grounds of Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster is the Ann's Choice Retirement Community and the Warminster Community Park in Warminster, Pa. In Warminster and surrounding towns in eastern Pennsylvania, and at other sites around the United States, the foams once used routinely in firefighting training at military bases contained per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Frustrated by the Defense Department's pace of identifying installations contaminated with chemicals used in firefighting foam as well as industrial and commercial products, Congress plans to order the Pentagon to complete the task in two years.

The fiscal 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, approved by the House on Tuesday and expected to pass the Senate next week, requires the DoD to complete preliminary assessments and site testing at all bases and National Guard facilities by the end of 2023.

The deadline is needed, legislators say, because the timeline and lack of transparency by the Defense Department has left communities wondering whether their water and the ground they occupy are contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS.

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"I'm outraged every time I hear the stories from the service members in my state who unknowingly raised their families near PFAS-contaminated bases and had no idea of the danger," Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., said during a hearing Thursday.

The Pentagon's inspector general released a report in July saying that the DoD waited five years to reduce the use of PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foam used for firefighting in training and emergencies, even though its Emerging Chemicals Program issued an alert in 2011 describing PFAS as a concern.

The delay possibly exposed "people and the environment" to preventable risks, the DoD IG concluded.

As the result of a bureaucratic loophole, the DoD was not required to take action to address the risks highlighted in the alert until 2016, allowing years to pass while troops continued to be exposed.

The delay -- and a subsequent focus on firefighting foams while largely ignoring other sources -- continued to expose service members and their families to the dangerous substances, the report found.

Concern has grown in the past decade over PFAS, which have been linked to cancer and birth defects, although research remains insufficient to understand the full impact of the chemicals on people. 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.

The 2020 defense policy bill required the Defense Department to test the blood of military and civilian installation firefighters for PFAS.

The DoD's work, according to Laura Macaluso, DoD's acting deputy assistant secretary for force safety and occupational health, will help expand the body of scientific knowledge on these substances and lead to advances in care, if needed.

"We are hopeful that there will be evidence connecting particular blood levels of one or more PFAS to specific adverse health effects in the next two years, and that we could expedite this trend analysis," Macaluso said.

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.

As of Thursday, the DoD had identified 699 active or former military bases and National Guard facilities where two of the chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) or perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), may have been used or released into the environment.

During the Thursday hearing, Richard Kidd, the DoD's deputy assistant secretary for environment and energy resilience, said 190 of those installations have been assessed, with 115 needing further review and possibly remediation.

The other 75 showed no record of any use of firefighting foam, and "the investigation process has essentially stopped" for those facilities, Kidd said.

He added that the Pentagon had planned to complete the identification and testing process of all installations by the end of 2023.

The Pentagon has banned the use of PFAS-containing foams for training on military installations, although the product is still used on installations during emergencies and aboard ships.

The DoD has faced challenges finding an effective PFAS-free firefighting foam, since none is commercially available that meets its standards, according to the Pentagon.

The department is currently funding research to develop a replacement.

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

Related: Military Firefighters Say DoD Isn't Moving Fast Enough to Protect Them from Toxic Chemicals

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