According to a recent report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Department of Defense (DOD) significantly underestimated the number of American service members who were exposed to potentially hazardous levels of long-lasting chemicals in the drinking water provided on military installations.
While the DOD estimated that 175,000 service members were exposed annually across 24 bases, the EWG estimated that figure to be closer to over 600,000 over 116 military facilities.
Instead of actively aiming to inform service members and clean up its legacy contamination, the Department of Defense is attempting to minimize these hazards. Scott Fabert, senior vice president of government relations at EWG, spoke to The Guardian. It has a long history of turning a blind eye to the pollution caused by PFAS.
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Per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds, sometimes known as PFAS, are known as environmental toxins because of their persistence in both the environment and the human body as well as their inability to degrade. Since the 1940s, they have been widely used in the industry for a variety of applications, including goods that are heat-, stain-, and water-resistant.
According to The War Horse, they are also an active component of aqueous film-forming foam, and the military’s reliance on this foam is a significant factor in why U.S. military stations have some of the highest PFAS concentrations in the nation. Because PFAS exposure has been linked to everything from cancer to immune system suppression to reproductive problems, this is poor news for the health of service personnel.
For instance, after 35 years of service in the Air National Guard at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, Kendall Brock received a diagnosis of stage 4 bladder cancer. The groundwater at the base had tested positive for PFAS two years prior to his diagnosis.
According to his wife Doris, “If you think that you’ve been drinking the water, washing in it, and eating food that you cooked in it for years and years and you know about this it’s really alarming.” It’s quite spooky.
As part of the National Defense Authorization Act for that year, Congress mandated that the DOD submit a report on the possible health effects of PFAS exposure for veterans and active duty service personnel. There are various issues with the report, according to EWG, which was published in April:
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- Outdated safety standards: The DOD based its calculations on exposure to PFOA and PFOS two of the most well-known PFAS on the 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advisory safety limit of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). This led it to conclude that 24 installations serve their resident’s contaminated drinking water. However, when the report was released, the EPA was in the process of updating its advisory safety levels to near-zero ppt. While the update was released in June two months after the DOD report Faber told The Guardian that the DOD was aware of the upcoming changes and likely published the report early so as not to have to accommodate them. Taking the EPA s new safety limits into account, EWG came up with a calculation of more than 640,000 service members exposed to at least 116 installations.
- Incomplete Analysis: Even if you accept the 70 ppt safety limit, the DOD underestimated exposure. It excluded at least four bases from its report where levels higher than 70 ppt had been detected in the drinking water before the report was released: Fort Leavenworth, Kansas; Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey; Yakima Training Center, Washington; and Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
- Limited Timeline: The DOD figure of 175,000 only accounts for how many people might be drinking the contaminated water at the bases currently. It does not consider everyone who has lived and worked at the bases between now and at least the 1970s when the firefighting foam began to be used, nor does it account for the fact that service members often move between bases.
- Incomplete Health Assessment: The report did not consider all the potential health impacts of PFAS, including that PFOA and PFOS have been linked to testicular and kidney cancer. What s more, they did not consider the impact of PFAS exposure on pregnant people and babies, despite the fact that around 13,000 active service members give birth each year, according to the DOD s own statistics.
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According to The Guardian, Faber didn’t just critique the report’s content. Additionally, it had to be requested from the department if service members or other members of the public wanted to read it because it had never been posted on the DOD’s PFAS website.
According to Faber, that is the aspect that should concern every American. They didn’t only purposely underestimate how many military members were exposed; they also kept it a secret.