FOIA Data: Tap Water at 28 Military Bases Tainted With ‘Forever Chemicals’ Above States’ Safety Standards

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For Immediate Release: 
Monday, March 23, 2020

WASHINGTON – Drinking water at more than two dozen U.S. military installations is contaminated with toxic fluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, at levels that exceed the standards set or proposed by a number of states, according to EWG’s analysis of Defense Department data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Among the most contaminated sites in EWG’s analysis are Fort Bragg, in North Carolina, the West Point Military Academy, in New York, and the Yuma Proving Ground, in Arizona. The complete list of sites is here.

On Feb. 13, the Pentagon reported that more than 600 military sites and surrounding communities may have drinking water or groundwater contaminated by PFAS – a more than 50 percent increase from previous estimates. The report said none of the sites have PFAS in excess of the non-binding health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“No one – on or off base – is drinking water above EPA’s level of 70 parts per trillion where DoD is the known source of PFOS and PFOA,” the two most notorious chemicals in the PFAS family, the report said.

But Pentagon data, released to EWG last April, shows 28 installations where drinking water was contaminated with individual or total PFAS chemicals above the much lower legal limits set or proposed by one or more states.

Those states include New Hampshire, which has set a legal limit of 12 ppt for PFOA and 15 ppt for PFOS, and New York, which has proposed legal limits of 10 ppt for both PFOS and PFOA. EWG scientists and other experts have concluded the safe level for PFAS in drinking water is 1 ppt.

“It’s deeply troubling that service members and their families are drinking water that may have unsafe levels of PFAS,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs.

At Fort Bragg, home to more than 100,000 active duty personnel and family members, the maximum detection of all PFAS was 62.1 ppt. At West Point, the maximum detection of all PFAS was 55 ppt.

Most of the bases are in states that have not yet set legal limits for PFAS in drinking water. But one, the Center Strafford Training Site in New Hampshire, had total PFAS of 60.6 ppt – four or five times that state’s legal limits for PFOA and PFOS.

Some PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, liver damage and harm to the reproductive and immune systems. Because they build up in our bodies and do not break down in the environment, they have become known as “forever chemicals.” The primary source of PFAS pollution at military bases is PFAS-based firefighting foam, known as AFFF.

EWG has so far confirmed PFAS in the tap water or groundwater at 328 military sites. Until recently, PFAS contaminated the drinking water of dozens of bases, and many communities near these installations continue to drink contaminated water. Through Freedom of Information Act requests, EWG also discovered that many of the highest PFAS detections in the nation have been found on or near military installations.  

Defense Department officials have understood the risks of AFFF since the early 1970s, when Navy and Air Force studies first showed the firefighting foam was toxic to fish. In 2001, a Defense Department memo concluded that the main ingredient in AFFF was “persistent, bioaccumulating and toxic.”

The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 included important bipartisan PFAS reforms, including a provision to phase out AFFF by 2024. But the NDAA fell short of what’s needed to address the serious public health risks posed by PFAS, especially PFOA and PFOS.

“Congress should do much more to accelerate the cleanup of legacy PFAS contamination,” said Faber. “To do so, Congress should increase funding for programs like the Defense Environmental Restoration Program and designate PFAS as hazardous substances under EPA’s Superfund program, which will ensure that PFAS manufacturers pay their fair share of cleanup costs.”

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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