A recently released inspector general report finds that the U.S. Defense Department responded too slowly to reduce the dangers of cancer-causing chemicals used in firefighting foam, despite knowing the health hazards for decades.
The report also finds the Defense Department failed to put in place adequate measures to protect personnel, the environment and communities near military bases.
The military issued an alert in 2011 describing the risks to people and the environment posed by PFAS (perfluoroalkyl or polyfluoroalkyl substances) used in firefighting foams. This alert did not compel officials to take action or phase out the harmful substances, according to the report. As a result, little was done to mitigate PFAS impacts until 2016.
State regulators have blamed lack of federal oversight for PFAS contaminating groundwater around the Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases in New Mexico.
PFAS chemicals are known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down, allowing them to accumulate in soil, water and living organisms. Adverse health effects include increased cholesterol, reproductive problems, impaired immunity and cancer.
The report faults the military for not taking a comprehensive or “enterprise-wide” approach in tackling PFAS hazards. Military efforts focued mainly on PFAS in fire-retardant foam and not other sources of PFAS, the report says.
“As a result, people and the environment may continue to be exposed to preventable risks from other PFAS‑containing materials,” the report says.
The report credits defense officials for their recent efforts to phase out PFAS from firefighting foam and to notify communities of the possible hazards that PFAS-laced discharges from military bases pose to groundwater.
But an environmental group contends the military, which helped develop PFAS for fire suppressants, knew they were toxic back in the 1970s and ignored the risks for decades.
“The IG report actually only scratches the surface,” Scott Faber, vice president of the nonprofit Environmental Working Group based in Washington, D.C., told Stars and Stripes. He said military leaders “failed to act in violation of their own policies.”
In the meantime, he noted, legacy PFAS pollution, detected around bases such as Cannon and Holloman, is given low priority because Congress and federal agencies don't require the cleanup.
The federal Superfund law also doesn’t designate PFAS as hazardous chemicals under the federal Superfund law, thus cleanup isn’t considered urgent, Faber added.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has not set a drinking water limit for PFAS. It established a lifetime health advisory level for two chemicals in the PFAS group (PFOA and PFOS) at 70 parts per trillion. Health impacts are seen when PFAS is ingested above this threshold for many years.
New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney has accused the military of doing nothing to allay the PFAS plumes generated by the two Air Force bases.
In 2020, the Air Force agreed to pay the state $251,000 for Cannon allowing its wastewater permit to expire. Cannon also agreed to monitor groundwater for PFAS.
That settlement didn’t affect the lawsuit the state Attorney General's Office filed against the Air Force in 2019, after groundwater samples in Clovis and Alamogordo showed chemical levels hundreds of times higher than the federal advisory limits.
The inspector general expresses concern about the military declining to track and analyze blood samples taken from its firefighters who were likely exposed to PFAS. The report says it was a missed opportunity to further study the impacts of these chemicals on human health.
Considering an estimated 300 military installations have suffered PFAS contamination, it's probable many nearby communities have been affected, Farber said.
Five years ago, the military replaced the chemical PFOS in firefighting foam with another PFAS chemical that was equally toxic. Two years ago, Congress ordered the military to quit using PFAS in fire training and to phase out the substances in foams by 2024.
For now, Faber said, the military will keep the PFAS-laden foams on hand despite the growing research on the health hazards.