More than Half a Million Troops, Families, Exposed to 'Forever Chemicals,' Watchdog Group Says

Airman blows a small sea of fire retardant foam.
Airman blows a small sea of fire retardant foam that was unintentionally released in an aircraft hangar, Sept. 24, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo/Ken Wright/Released)

The Defense Department has greatly underestimated the number of people exposed to dangerous levels of harmful chemicals and downplayed the exposure risk in an internal report published this year, an environmental advocacy group charges.

A Pentagon study completed in April estimated that roughly 175,000 people at 24 installations consumed water that contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, collectively known as PFAS, during the time that it was contaminated above the lifetime exposure levels once considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

But the Environmental Working Group, a watchdog association that tracks risks from those chemicals, said the number is higher: an estimated 640,000 people at 116 military installations.

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The group said that the DoD's analysis looked only at installations where levels of the chemicals exceeded 70 parts per trillion -- the advisory level set by the EPA in 2016 -- and doesn't account for the new accepted measure of less than 1 part per trillion.

The study also did not include possible exposure from drinking water from non-DoD sources, such as local utility companies or privatized on-base water systems, which also may be contaminated.

And it didn't explore the effects on pregnant women and unborn children, including an estimated 13,000 servicewomen, as well as family members living on the installations.

"PFAS exposure during pregnancy and childhood is linked to numerous health harms, including pregnancy-induced hypertension, low birth weight, shorter duration of breastfeeding, thyroid disruption, reduced vaccine effectiveness and harm to reproductive systems," EWG toxicologist Alexis Temkin said in a press release Thursday.

In response to the report, a DoD spokesman said the department has worked to address all drinking water exposures over the EPA's limits since 2016 and remains committed to its cleanup duties.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Tim Gorman noted that the current accepted level of lower than 1 part per trillion is not set in policy and the DoD looks forward to a final decision by the agency on a regulatory standard by the end of the year.

"The Department of Defense prioritizes efforts to protect our military and civilian workforce, families who live in our installations, as well as residents of the surrounding communities, by addressing risks to human health and the environment caused by our activities,” Gorman said in an email to

PFAS chemicals are used in industrial products such as lubricants and hydraulic fluids and consumer use in non-stick cookware, food wrappers, cosmetics and stain repellents. The synthetic substances are a key ingredient in aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, used by military firefighters to combat ship and aircraft fires. Runoff of AFFF from training and operations is the main source of contamination at and nearby U.S. military bases.

PFAS are often referred to as "forever chemicals" because they do not break down and are impossible to destroy by any currently available method, although research is underway.

The compounds have been linked to ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, and high blood pressure in pregnant women, and may play a role in testicular and kidney cancer.

In its report, which the DoD did not release but was obtained by the Environmental Working Group, the Defense Department said most PFAS exposure among troops is likely the result of using food packaging and cookware or furniture with non-stick coatings and not military-related.

The report also questioned PFAS' health effects. In a review of existing studies, the DoD found that the compounds may decrease the effectiveness of vaccines and affect cholesterol levels and liver enzymes, but no other studies could demonstrate "causal association" for other illnesses.

The DoD began testing and monitoring off-base drinking water in 2016. According to the Pentagon, 705 active and former U.S. military installations are either contaminated with PFAS, had a suspected discharge of PFAS compounds, or need to be assessed for contamination.

As of Sept. 30, the DoD had completed a preliminary assessment or site analysis at 373 installations, finding that 273 need to move on to the next phase of the cleanup process, according to the department's PFAS website.

The DoD has banned the use of AFFF in training on installations but continues to use it on Navy vessels and for operational fires.

Beginning in April 2023, the DoD will ban the use of non-stick cookware in galleys and dining facilities and prohibit the purchase of stain-resistant upholstered furniture and carpets.

The largest bases among the 24 identified are Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington; Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho; Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio; and the southern portion of Camp Pendleton, California.

The EWG noted that the list did not include several installations that have had exposure levels that exceeded the former 70 parts per trillion threshold in the past six years, including Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

An additional 88 had levels higher than the current accepted level of less than 1 part per trillion, according to the Environmental Working Group.

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

Related: Navy: No Drinking Water Fouled by Spill of Firefighting Foam

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