Pentagon Admits it Undercounted Military Bases Contaminated with ‘Forever Chemicals’

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For Immediate Release: 
Thursday, November 21, 2019

WASHINGTON – The number of military installations and adjacent communities likely contaminated with toxic fluorinated chemicals, or PFAS, is higher than previously disclosed, a top Defense Department official admitted – but the Pentagon can’t say how badly it undercounted contaminated sites.

“[W]e think there are probably more installations, and I’m not ready to tell you what that number is, but we found that we undercounted,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Robert McMahon said Wednesday, according to the Military Times. He said the department will name the sites when it has verified the number and locations.

The Pentagon previously identified 401 locations on both active and former military facilities where PFAS compounds were known or suspected to contaminate groundwater or surface water. To date, EWG has confirmed the presence of PFAS at nearly 300 military installations but expects that number to grow as the Defense Department responds to EWG’s Freedom of Information Act requests.

The likely source of PFAS contamination on and near Defense Department installations is the use of fluorinated firefighting foams, which the Pentagon helped develop in the 1960s. The Pentagon has known that PFAS was toxic since the 1980s but failed to alert service members.

“The Defense Department worked with 3M to create fluorinated foams and has known it was toxic for decades but failed to alert service members or clean up legacy pollution,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Now we learn they haven’t even tallied up the full scope of PFAS contamination on military bases. Does anyone at the Pentagon know how to count?”

In July, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced the formation of a task force to ascertain the extent of PFAS contamination at military bases and determine what health risks service members and their families may face.

EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University maintain a map of where PFAS has been detected in drinking water and groundwater at military bases, civilian airports and industrial sites.  

Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 would quickly end the military’s use of fluorinated foam. The House version would also end the military’s use of PFAS in food packaging.

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