For a few years now, it’s been speculated that drinking water at US military bases is contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals. The number of affected installations, as well as the number of people who might fault their poor health on government negligence is growing every year, as more water sources are being tested following a 2016 DoD initiative.
Their number was in the dozens at first, and then steadily begun to climb to 126, as of an early 2019 count reported by Military Times. Who knows where it will stand by 2020? By DoD estimates, 60% of all under or aboveground wells tested show a concentration of contaminants that would make them unsafe to drink.
What are they testing the water for?
PFOS and PFOA or poly –perfluooctane sulfates belong to a class of manmade fluorocarbon compounds known as PFAS. There are thousands of variations but only approximately 605 are used commercially, in things like non adhering pans, stain free carpets, food packaging, and firefighting foam, for which their water and grease repellent properties work wonders.
Both chemicals were developed during the late 1960s by 3M and DuPont respectively to meet the Navy’s requirements for a new firefighting solution for combating jet fuel blazes. This materialized into aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), of which PFOS and PFOA are the main active ingredients, a fire suppressant agent so effective that all branches of the US armed forces adopted it as a standard by the mid-70s.
What was known about the contaminants in the water?
From early lab testing, scientists at 3M, DuPont, and the Naval Research Laboratory found reasons for concern with the new chemicals, which seemed to affect the liver, kidney and reproductive functions in lab animals. Further studies linked them to thyroid gland problems, hypertension, high cholesterol and developmental birth defects.
Furthermore, the strong bonds that make fluorocarbons so good at fighting fires also make them impervious to all naturally occurring agents, meaning they virtually never break down in the environment once released.
Add to this their high potential for getting carried by rainwater and for sipping into the ground, together with five decades of regular fire drills, and you get the groundwater concentrations recorded on US military bases – ranging from thousands of parts per trillion (ppt) to hundreds of times that. For reference, the health advisory for lifetime exposure to PFOA and PFOS proposed by the Environmental Protection Agency’s in 2016 stands at just 70 ppt.
Why did it take us so long?
The results of studies done by either the fluorocarbon industry or the DoD into the toxic potential of PFOS and PFOA were by and large kept secret. The industry hid what they knew from the Pentagon, the Pentagon failed to inform its soldiers, and both parties kept everything away from the public.
That is until 1998, when Rob Bilott, the attorney representing a West Virginia cattle rancher in a litigation suit against DuPont, gained access to the company’s confidential files and revealed to the press the extent of their cover-up.
Around the same time, an internal memo circulating among DoD upper echelons makes it clear authorities were fully aware that PFOS was “persistent, bioaccumulating, and toxic”. However, it was only after the cattle rancher story blew over and both 3M and DuPont ceased production of their chemicals in early 2000s that the Government decided to get involved.
A whole back and forth followed between the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the EPA, the DoD and the fluorocarbon industry for around a decade after, trying to establish the exact toxicological limits for PFAS, how many members of the class should be considered harmful, how much of it is safe to leave in the environment, how exactly it should be removed and who should do it.
In 2010, the DoD issued a “risk alert” severely limiting the use of PFOS and establishing guidelines for cleaning fire drill areas. Further regulations of this kind would be enacted by each military branch; and in 2015 a total phase-out process for PFOA and PFOS will get underway.
What should we do now?
After the cattle rancher settled with DuPont, Bilott went on to represent some 69.000 Ohio River valley inhabitants whose drinking water had been contaminated by spills from a local DuPont plant. After a landmark epidemiological study proved that the people in the area were suffering from thyroid cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, liver disease and other health issues associated with PFAS at a far greater rate than the general population, DuPont was forced to pay 700 million dollars in compensation.
Further litigation suits followed, hitting all the big names in the industry, and accruing to compensatory damages in the range of billions of dollars. DuPont was forced to abandon its fluorocarbon branch, which was inherited by Chemours, together with all the lawsuits that came with it.
Somewhat surprising considering its prominent role in promoting PFOS/PFOA, the DoD remained largely unscathed through all of this -- and that is clearly not for a lack of aggrieved parties, since the number of people harmed through government inaction must range in the millions.
The truth of the matter is that only now active soldiers and veterans are beginning to link the dots between the inexplicable ailments they and members of their families have been suffering for years, sometimes through generations, and the places they lived in while in service.