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To Support Military Families, Congress Must Pass the PFAS Action Act

Policy Analysis
Thursday, January 9, 2020

On Wednesday, I spent the day with retired military firefighter Kevin Ferrara. Like thousands of military firefighters, Master Sgt. Ferrara was trained at Chanute Air Force Base – a now-closed facility in Illinois – to spray firefighting foams made with the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS.

Firefighters first started to train at Chanute around the same time that the Department of Defense was working with 3M to create the PFAS-based aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF. By the early 1970s, the Defense Department knew that PFAS were toxic. In fact, the Pentagon was so worried about the toxic effects of PFAS that officials recommended the use of carbon filters to keep the chemicals out of the water. In the early 1980s, the Defense Department conducted its own animal studies, which further confirmed that PFAS chemicals posed serious health risks. By 2001, the department had concluded that foam made with PFAS was “persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic.”

But it continued for decades to require that military firefighters use PFAS-based foams, despite the risks, and failed to ensure that Kevin and other firefighters had protective gear. What’s more, the Defense Department directed firefighters training with AFFF simply to spray it on the ground – even though military officials knew the PFAS in the foam would pollute the drinking water on base or in neighboring communities.

Kevin was not informed of the risks posed by PFAS chemicals until 2015 – more than 40 years after the Pentagon first knew of the potential harms, which include an increased risk of cancer. Now studies have found that firefighters like Kevin have elevated levels of PFAS in their blood.

Bases like Chanute, where military firefighters trained for decades, have some of the highest levels of PFAS that have been detected anywhere in the U.S. The Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory says PFAS levels should not exceed 70 parts per trillion, or ppt. But PFAS levels detected at Chanute topped 600,000 ppt. PFAS levels at Langley Air Force Base, where Kevin also served, topped 2.2 million ppt. He also served at Cannon Air Force Base, where PFAS have contaminated the milk supplies of nearby dairy farms.

Today PFAS contamination has been confirmed at nearly 300 military installations. EWG recently identified 138 other military fire and crash training sites where PFAS-based foams were likely used. So far the Pentagon has refused to clean up these contaminated sites, citing the absence of a “hazardous substance” designation by Congress or the EPA. But this week, Congress has a chance to right this wrong. If the House passes H.R. 535, the PFAS Action Act, the Defense Department will be required to clean up legacy PFAS contamination.

H.R. 535 won’t address all of the challenges facing firefighters like Master Sgt. Ferrara. Much more needs to be done to notify and test the blood of military veterans who drank contaminated water or handled foams without proper protective gear. But cleaning up legacy PFAS pollution is a crucial first step. 


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