As the danger of perfluorinated compounds becomes a national conversation, the military is having to come to grips with the possibility that thousands of military families were exposed to incredibly dangerous and toxic chemicals. Many of these military families have lost loves ones, undergone serious cancer treatment, or are now raising children who require significant medical treatment from exposure to PFAS chemicals. For years, the Pentagon squashed the notion that drinking water and housing at military installations were unsafe. It wasn’t until April 2018, nearly 50 years after the introduction to PFAS on military bases, that the Pentagon acknowledged the toxicity of perfluorinated chemicals. Earlier this year, the Pentagon identified more than 600 military sites with high levels of cancer-causing perfluorinated compounds.
Because of its toxicity, in 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the threshold for PFAS in water.
What is PFAS and why should I be concerned?
PFAS is an abbreviation for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. It’s not just a single chemical, there are hundreds of manmade chemicals comprised of carbon and fluorine atoms. Certain PFAS chemicals are more prevalent in the environment than others. The chemicals are made up of a chain of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. The carbon-fluorine bond is one of the strongest and as a result, these chemicals do not degrade in the environment. This fact earns the chemicals their nickname as “forever chemicals”. It’s for this reason that these chemicals persist decades later in places that have not been training sites.
The contamination isn’t just limited to military bases. Places with industrial implants, commercial airports and airport training sites are affected as well. In July 2019, the Environment Working and Northeastern University identified at least 712 documented cases of PFAS contamination in 49 states. The EWG estimates that more than 100 million Americans could be drinking PFAS contaminated tap water.
Why are military service members and their families at higher risk for PFAS Exposure?
Military sites used firefighting foam called aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) in its training practices. The substance contains certain PFAS chemicals linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and weakened childhood immunity, as well as other serious health problems. The most widespread chemicals are perfluorooctanoic (PFOA) acid and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). PFAS chemicals persist in the environment because they don’t breakdown.
What is being done about PFAS exposure?
As of July 2019, the DOD has spent more than half a billion dollars on PFAS investigations. Some of the agency’s responses include providing bottled water and in-home water filtration systems. However, the DOD has not actually come up with a plan to clean up PFAS contamination. The Pentagon estimates that it could cost at least $2 billion.
Further, in February of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry launched a review into water contamination at U.S. military installations. The CDC’s review will look specifically at the impact these chemicals have had on the people living in these communities.
The goal of the review is to help understand if exposure to certain chemicals caused cancer and other injuries to thousands of military families. The review comes after years of reports of troops and their families falling ill with several forms of cancer. It also comes nearly three decades after community members of Patrick Air Force Base in Florida raised alarm about the high incidence of illness in their community.
What are the diseases linked to PFAS?
There have been limited human studies on PFAS, however, researchers believe that PFOS, PFOA exposure may be linked to the following:
- Developmental delays in fetuses and children
- Decreased fertility
- Increased cholesterol
- Changes in the immune system
- Increase uric acid levels
- Changes in liver enzymes
- Prostate, kidney, breast and testicular cancer
When certain diagnosis begins happening in clusters it’s important to look at the environment.
What can I do if I live near a contaminated installation?
The EWG says that individuals can take steps toward removing the harmful chemicals themselves. The company suggests several filters to remove PFAS from your drinking water, including osmosis and activated carbon filters may be effective for reducing or eliminating the chemicals from your water.
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