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.
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.
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.
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."