Health

Pentagon failing to study firefighter PFAS exposure, says internal audit

WASHINGTON, DC — The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) is not planning to study the long-term health of military firefighters exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals despite taking steps to obtain the necessary blood testing data, according to an internal inspector general audit.

The report, released Friday, July 23, faults the Defense Department for not planning to track and analyze the blood results of firefighters who are being tested this year under requirements included in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

That goes against the department’s own workplace exposure guidelines, the report says.

“The DoD is missing an opportunity to capture comprehensive PFAS exposure data for DoD firefighters to be used for risk management, including future studies to assess long‑term health effects relating to PFAS exposure,” states the report, requested by Congress two years ago.

The inspector general, who functions as an internal watchdog and advises the Secretary of Defense, said the case will remain open until report recommendations are carried out.

The report, which includes some significant redactions, was published with responses from two assistant defense secretaries who promised to address the findings.

“This Inspector General’s report confirms that the Defense Department must urgently do more to protect service members and their families from PFAS chemicals,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, who led 31 members of Congress in requesting the audit in July 2019.

Advocates on the PFAS issue jumped on the report this week, criticizing the Pentagon over the lack of health study planning as well as findings that fault the military for moving slowly after being alerted in 2011 to the environmental and public health threat posed by its decades-long use of PFAS-laden aqueous film forming foam, known as AFFF.

Because the DoD did not begin taking proactive risk management steps until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set advisory levels for the individual compounds PFOS and PFOA in drinking water in 2016, “people and the environment may have been exposed to preventable risks from PFAS‑containing AFFF,” the report states.

The report also criticized the DoD for focusing too narrowly on AFFF instead of taking an “enterprise-wide” approach to evaluate all potential sources of PFAS exposure.

“This report should alarm our service members and their families,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, which is lobbying for strong PFAS regulations in Congress. “DoD understood the health risks posed by toxic PFAS for decades but failed to act to protect service members.

“Now DoD is letting down our service members again by failing to address all sources of PFAS and by failing to make sure our military firefighters get the care they need,” Faber said.

Michigan advocates were not surprised by the findings.

“This is not news in Oscoda,” said Tony Spaniola, a metro Detroit attorney who owns a home on Van Etten Lake across from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base.

Oscoda activists like Spaniola and others in the Need Our Water (NOW) group say they’re beyond fed up at the sluggish pace of remedial efforts by the Air Force, which had a head start on the PFAS issue at Wurtsmith. The contaminants were discovered at the base by state regulators in 2010 and nearby fish advisories have been in place since 2012.

Related: A tourist town wrestles a ‘forever’ problem

Cleanup efforts since then have been marked by disputes between the Air Force — which serves as lead federal agency on its own pollution problem — and the state of Michigan, which has struggled to force DoD compliance with state rules limiting PFAS in surface water.

Numerous Wurtsmith veterans have also come forward alleging exposure-related ailments since local health officials in 2016 warned about the chemicals in potable groundwater. State modeling has shown on-base wells were likely contaminated with PFAS before the complex connected to a municipal supply in 1997, after the base closed.

The military began using AFFF to extinguish petroleum-based fires in the 1970s. It also began studying its toxicity around the same time. The Pentagon was informed in the early 2000s about a voluntary manufacturer phase-out of some individual compounds due to environmental persistence and toxicity, the report states, but waited until 2011 to issue an alert.

While most DoD contamination occurred before 2000, notable examples took place more recently, the report states.

For example, at the Naval Auxiliary Landing Field Fentress in Virginia, “officials released PFAS‑containing AFFF directly onto the ground to test the functionality of firefighting vehicles in the years between 2010 and 2015,” the report states. “Additionally, installation firefighters at Peterson Air Force Base told us that they did not stop releasing PFAS‑containing AFFF in a location where it could affect the soil during training exercises until 2011.”

While not cited in the report, an AFFF spill was documented at the Battle Creek Air National Guard Base at W.K. Kellogg Airport in 2014 during an equipment mishap.

The DoD did not begin requiring actions such as preventing controlled AFFF releases during training and removing foam when practical until 2016, the report states. Because of that, firefighters at some installations “were not aware of the risks until 2016.”

“This verifies everything we know, Spaniola said. “They failed to look at all the exposure pathway risks. They failed to protect veterans and their families. They failed to protect firefighters. They failed to protect the community.”

“It’s confirmation of what we’ve experienced the last 11 years.”

The federal audit did not evaluate Wurtsmith specifically, but another Michigan base was among five active and one former base assessed as part of the inspector general report. Camp Grayling, a large Michigan National Guard training facility where the chemicals have polluted local drinking water supplies, was evaluated alongside Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps bases in North Carolina, Virginia, California, Colorado and New Hampshire.

According to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, those are among more than 300 current and former military installations where PFAS have been found in the groundwater.

At Camp Grayling, the audit notes that groundwater investigations have found PFAS in places with no apparent connection to AFFF, such as near an equipment and vehicle wash station — an example which “indicates that PFAS contaminant effects may be present in unexpected locations and resulting from unknown sources.”

The finding supports the audits conclusion that preventable PFAS contamination may be continuing from other sources, such as “fire‑resistant aviation hydraulic fluids.”

Paul Cramer, assistant secretary of defense for sustainment, said risk management efforts for PFAS materials beyond AFF would be developed next year, in comments attached to the report.

Thomas Constable, assistant secretary of defense for readiness, said firefighter blood testing data gathered this year would be shared with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to assist a study on cancer among firefighters. Additionally, the DoD will analyze PFAS serum lab results at the Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center and develop exposure limits. That could take more than four years, Constable said.

Kildee indicated Congress wants the DoD to pick up the pace.

“Due to the Defense Department’s use of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, many service members, military firefighters and their families are still at risk of exposure,” Kildee said. “Supporting our brave men and women in uniform means transitioning more quickly away from using PFAS chemicals and ensuring service members have access to quality health care. It’s long past time for the Defense Department to stop using dangerous PFAS chemicals.”

Related stories:

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In Oscoda, a tourist town wrestles a ‘forever’ problem

Air Force says Superfund bars state law compliance

Whitmer invokes defense bill to force stricter cleanup

Air Force says it won’t follow state law during cleanup

Plan to stop toxic lake foam a ‘step in the right direction’

Pentagon needs ‘culture change’ on pollution

With ‘trepidation,’ Michigan settles Air Force dispute

Michigan veterans face uphill battle proving toxic exposure

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