The Defense Department kicked off its first PFAS Task Force meeting today to address chemicals that have affected military installations and surrounding communities.
"Our most important resource is our people," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Sustainment Bob McMahon said. "We have a responsibility to take care of our people, their families and the communities where we serve."
On July 23, Defense Secretary Dr. Mark T. Esper announced the task force to address PFAS — per and polyfluoroalkyl substances. DOD has identified 401 active and former — base realignment and closure — installations with at least one area where there is a known or suspected release of perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid. PFOS and PFOA are two chemicals of the larger class known as PFAS.
PFAS are ubiquitous, found in everyday items such as nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, fast-food wrappers, water-resistant clothing, shampoo, dental floss, nail polish and eye makeup. In defense applications, the chemicals have been found in firefighting foam known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. The foam is used by DOD and other firefighting organizations to rapidly extinguish fuel fires and protect against catastrophic loss of life and property.
In May 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency issued health advisories under the Safe Drinking Water Act, recommending a 70 parts per trillion level of PFOS and/or PFOA in drinking water.
"DOD's first priority is to address drinking water with PFOS and PFOA from DOD activities," Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment Maureen Sullivan said.
In several congressional hearings, Sullivan explained that DOD tested all of the 524 water systems worldwide for which the department is the water purveyor and has worked with water suppliers to test systems where it buys water. The department identified 24 DOD drinking water systems and 12 other systems containing PFOS and PFOA levels above the health advisory recommendation.
To protect surrounding communities, the military departments use data from investigating known and suspected releases of firefighting foam to identify affected public water systems and private wells.
While the specific actions taken vary according to the unique circumstances at each location, the military departments have taken swift action to address drinking water affected from DOD activities. They have provided alternative or treated water through activities such as:
DOD follows the federal cleanup law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as Superfund, to prioritize, study and appropriately address sites.
To prevent future releases to the environment, DOD stopped land-based use of AFFF in training, testing and maintenance through a departmentwide policy issued in January 2016. When DOD must use AFFF in emergencies to save lives, releases are treated as a spill. Affected soil is contained and removed, ensuring no further PFAS is added to the groundwater.
Looking ahead, the department is investing heavily in researching fluorine-free alternatives, Sullivan has testified to Congress. Other defense research includes innovations to speed up cleanup and better tools to understand how these chemicals move and transform in the environment.
Many federal agencies are also working to understand the science behind potential health effects from exposure to PFAS. DOD is supporting the efforts of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to conduct an exposure assessment in communities surrounding eight military installations and a nationwide health study. DOD has committed $40 million as directed by Congress.
"As the department addresses this national issue, we strive to work in collaboration with regulatory agencies and communities to ensure our resources are applied effectively to protect human health across the country as part of a national effort led by EPA," Sullivan said.
"DOD has taken the lead in protecting the health of persons on and near DOD installations by fully investigating releases and determining the appropriate cleanup actions based on risk," she said. "This is a national problem involving a wide array of industries and commercial applications, as well as many federal and state agencies. Therefore, it needs a nationwide solution."
Aqueous Film-Forming Foam
Military Departments & PFOS/PFOA
Defense Environmental Research Programs
Defense Environmental Restoration Programs