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DOD Addressing PFAS, Official Says

March 11, 2020 | BY David Vergun , DOD News

Over the past four years, the Defense Department has committed substantial resources and has taken actions to respond to concerns with PFAS, a DOD official said. 

Nationally, DOD had led the way in addressing these substances, she said.

A chemist holds a stopwatch as he times an experiment of a small fire in a lab.
Timed Test
Naval Research Lab Research Chemist Spencer Giles prepares to test an experimental aqueous film-forming foam at the NRL in Washington, Sept. 23, 2019. NRL scientists are conducting research to support the Defense Department’s effort to replace firefighting foams containing fluorine.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Manuel Najera, DOD
VIRIN: 190923-D-KT024-0078C

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are a group of man-made chemicals that are very persistent in the environment and the human body —  meaning they don't break down and they can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.

PFAS is an effective chemical in aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, which is used to put out fires quickly, particularly around aircraft.

Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, Defense Department, testified today at a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing concerning the impact of PFAS exposure on service members. 

A person wearing fire protection gear sprays foam on a fire in a 28-square-foot container.
Foam Sprayer
John Farley, director of fire test operations at the Naval Research Laboratory, tests the effectiveness of aqueous film-forming foam by spraying it on a gasoline fire. The test took place at the laboratory in Chesapeake Beach, Md. Oct. 25, 2019.
Photo By: David Vergun, DOD
VIRIN: 191025-D-UB488-006

In July 2019, a PFAS task force stood up "to provide strategic leadership and direction to ensure a coordinated, aggressive and holistic approach on DOD-wide efforts to proactively address PFAS," she said.

The task force focused on three goals:

  • Mitigating and eliminating the use of AFFF 
  • Understanding the impacts of PFAS on human health
  • Fulfilling DOD's cleanup responsibilities

The department is complying with the Environmental Protection Agency's lifetime health advisory for addressing drinking water, where DOD is the known source of PFAS release, she said. 

Known and suspected sources of PFAS release are in various stages of investigation and cleanup, she said, adding that information will be shared with affected communities in an "open and transparent manner."

A chemist looks at a computer screen that shows data of an experiment she is conducting.
Test and Research
Naval Research Lab Chemical Engineer Katherine Hinnant tests an experimental aqueous film-forming foam at the NRL in Washington, Sept. 23, 2019. NRL scientists are conducting research to support the Defense Department’s effort to replace firefighting foams containing fluorine.
Photo By: Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Manuel Najera, DOD
VIRIN: 190923-D-KT024-0170C

In January 2016, DOD issued a policy prohibiting the use of AFFF for maintenance, testing and training, Sullivan noted.

None of the commercially available PFAS-free foams meet DOD's strict standards of rapidly extinguishing fuel fires, she said. 

"We are funding extensive research and demonstration projects to test for fluorine-free alternatives," added Sullivan.

"The department recognizes that this is a national challenge involving a wide array of industries and commercial applications as well as many federal and state agencies. Therefore, it needs a nationwide solution," she said.