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Pentagon Official Provides Update on Work of Firefighting Foam Task Force

Sept. 18, 2019 | BY David Vergun
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A senior Defense Department official met with Pentagon reporters to update them on the progress of PFAS Task Force, which Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper set up this summer to address compounds that have affected the ground water of military installations and surrounding communities.

PFOS, perfluorooctane sulfonate and PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, are two chemicals of the larger class known as PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. The chemicals are in firefighting foam known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. The foam is used by DOD and civilian firefighting organizations to rapidly extinguish fuel fires and protect against catastrophic loss of life and property. It's also used in household products such as nonstick cookware, clothing, shoes, furniture and carpeting.

Robert H. McMahon, the assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, said DOD looked at 524 installations across the department to understand and characterize the drinking water systems for which it is responsible. Of those, 24 exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency's health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. The department has identified 401 active and former installations in the U.S. where there appeared to be some level of PFOS/PFOA from defense activities, McMahon said.

Man at table speaks
PFAS Task Force
Robert H. McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, presides over the first meeting of the PFAS task force in Washington, Aug. 9, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew L. Carroll, DOD
VIRIN: 190809-D-UO644-0033

No one is drinking water above the EPA lifetime health advisory level where DOD is the purveyor of the water, he emphasized.

McMahon said DOD has provided funding for an exposure assessment being conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease. In addition, he said, DOD will begin to collect effective data on its firefighting force, beginning with blood testing and growing into a larger health analysis.

"So it's a matter of collecting data, of being able to look at the data and draw meaningful conclusions by the professionals who do this for a living — being able to look at specifically those folks that we know are most affected by this, which are firefighters — and then from that, make determinations that allow us to move forward in, I think, a meaningful, thoughtful way that allows us to go attack this the way that we should," he said.

Firefighter prepares to extinguish blaze
Fire Extinguisher
A firefighter with the Montana Army National Guard’s 1050th Firefighting Tactical Group checks with the rest of the firefighting crew to make sure the hose is ready before heading into a simulator designed for aircraft rescue and firefighting training at Volk Field Air National Guard Base, Wis., as a part of their annual training at exercise Northern Lightning, May 8, 2019.
Photo By: Army Staff Sgt. Britney Hiat
VIRIN: 190508-Z-YV764-035
Firefighters fight blaze
Simulated Fire
Sailors assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and the destroyer USS Gridley practice firefighting skills and techniques by battling a simulated fire at the Bremerton International Emergency Services Training Center in Bremerton, Wash., May 15, 2019.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Wyatt L. Anthony
VIRIN: 190515-N-VH385-1173

Though no effective firefighting substitute for AFFF exists, McMahon said, DOD is conducting research experiments with other chemicals. Meanwhile, he added, AFFF is used in an actual aviation fuel fire emergencies, but the area is considered a spill site and is cleaned up immediately afterward.

McMahon noted that he has a personal interest in the cleanup, having spent 34 years in the Air Force with his family at multiple installations where firefighting foam containing PFAS was used.

Man at table speaks
Table Talk
Robert H. McMahon, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, presides over the first meeting of the PFAS task force in Washington, Aug. 9, 2019.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew L. Carroll, DOD
VIRIN: 190809-D-UO644-0012Y

The strength of the military is its people and its families, he said, and taking care of them is the department's top priority. 

"It's our families," he added. "It's the communities that surround us. We have a responsibility to work with them and to take care of them, the folks on the installation, and work with the communities outside of it. We understand that responsibility that starts with the secretary of defense. He is serious about taking care of our people. This is an integral part of that, and we're going to push hard to make sure we do that."