The Invisible Killer That’s Contaminating Drinking Water On American Military Bases

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At least 175 military installations around the United States have been found to be contaminated by a harmful chemical. It’s in the ground water, it’s in the drinking water, and it’s poisoning those who drink it.

The Environmental Working Group has flagged these sites as contaminated by fluorinated compounds known as PFAS/PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) or PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate), distributed between Fort Richardson, Alaska, to Fort Eustis, Virginia, along with 44 civilian airports where Air National Guard units are commonly stationed.

PFOA and PFOS are the most common chemicals used in AFFF. They are also found in common household products, but the health issues inherent in their use is only recently being understood. Contamination from these chemicals has been found to prompt a range of health risks, including kidney, testicular, or pancreatic cancer.

Source: Pixabay
PFOA and PFOS are chemicals commonly used in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) used to fight fires.


The EPA in 2016 set a lifetime health advisory (LTHA) level for two PFAS in drinking water: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The LTHA level is 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS combined, but because it was written as an advisory, and not a requirement, neither the Pentagon nor the municipality has been required to meet the standard, the Military Times reports.

The EWG’s interactive map shows where PFAS has been detected, and how severe the contamination levels are, some of them greater than 100,000 parts per trillion.

Source:Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst
PFOS and PFOA are also found in a number of household items, and can contaminate drinking water.


American service members and first responders are being threatened by an invisible yet deadly enemy, put there by their own countrymen.

According to attorney Gregory A. Cade, “Individuals at greater risk of harm from aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) made with toxic PFAS chemicals are those who have had direct chemical exposure, for example, they’ve ingested the chemicals via breathing, eating, drinking or skin contact with the foam. The primary exposure pathways in the workplace are inhalation of spray mist and dust contaminated with PFAS. Firefighters who are directly exposed to it are at greatest risk of this level of exposure.”

Source:Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst
Exposure to PFOA or PFOA can lead to serious health problems, and terminal illness.

Cade has over 25 years of experience in the environmental and occupational law and is the founder of Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. He spoke to a former military firefighter named Jerry T.R. about the man’s life after learning he had a terminal illness.

“Born in Colorado Springs, CO, in 1970, Jerry spent his entire life dedicated to work and family. He has been a military firefighter for nearly 18 years, when one August day in 2017, a urologist confirmed diagnosis of renal transitional cell carcinoma, a rare cancer of the kidney and scheduled him for surgery,” Cade wrote. “Permanently learning ways to cope with symptoms such as general pain and extreme fatigue, Jerry found pain more difficult to handle.

Source: Eglin Air Force Base
Enlisted service members and first responders are at high risk of drinking contaminated water, due to their proximity to the chemicals.


“After undergoing an open partial nephrectomy to salvage his right kidney and to preserve its function, Jerry recovered very well,” he continued. “As a military firefighter, Jerry did much more than fight fires. He also provided first aid to accident victims, performed inspections to minimize fire dangers, responded to hazardous materials spills and assisted civilian fire departments when needed. Ironically, the most dangerous thing about an occupation that involves running into a fire isn’t the flames, but the exposure to synthetic chemicals such as PFOS and PHOA used in firefighting foams. Jerry says roughly a third of his department has had some form of cancer in the past four years.

“I’m not saying that every single one of those cancers was caused by the job, but when happening at the same time, we have a problem,” Jerry told Cade.

Source: Air Force Civil Engineering Center
PFOS and PFOA contamination is suspected at more than 400 military bases across the United States,.

DoD officials have identified more than 400 sites suspected of PFOA and PFOS contamination. That’s twice as many as the EWG map first pointed out. These sites are now being prioritized for cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or CERCLA.

But the contamination can’t be flushed out overnight. It will take weeks, possibly even months, to undo the damage that has already been done to the environment and water systems at these sites, as it has elsewhere in the United States.

Cade offers Colorado’s cleanup process as an example.

“In Colorado, many of the fire stations and about 60% of residents have private drinking water wells,” Cade wrote. “AFFF was often used to fight fires but also for training purposes. In addition, the highly efficient type of fire suppressant agent was washed from fire trucks in fire stations bays after responding to fires. Elevated levels of PFAS were detected in drinking water supplied to homeowners whose wells were dry during the drought by the Fort Carson Fire Department. 12 wells tested near fire stations in Colorado had concentrations between 24 and 2,280 parts per trillion. That water was used by firefighters to cook and drink during extended shifts at the fire stations.

Source: Air Force Civil Engineering Center
Cleaning up the contamination is rarely easy.


“Fortunately, Colorado’s government is already ahead of most other states in addressing this issue. Federal and state health officials took steps to reduce the amount of water they took from the contaminated wells or shut them down and to help local water districts determine the cause of synthetic chemical contamination.

“Although after water treatment processes the perfluorinated-containing chemical levels ranged from 45 to 64 parts per trillion, below the federal government’s advisory limit, many science groups doubts over EPA Health Advisory levels for PFAS,” Cade added. “A recent draft study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, for certain PFAS, health issues began presenting themselves at significantly lower levels than the current EPA recommendation of 70 ppt.

Source: Air Force Civil Engineering Center
Weeks and months of testing is involved in the cleanup process.

“A number of U.S. states decided upon their own minimum safety standards for PFAS in drinking water in order to protect the public from the health risks of these chemicals. For example, New Jersey adopted a relatively low threshold for drinking water safety of 14 parts per trillion, after epidemiological tests revealed their state population already had a near-dangerous amount of PFAS in their blood.”

The military has since ceased its use of PFOA and PFOS in maintenance, testing or training, and will only use the firefighting foams containing these chemicals in actual emergencies. These products were first proven to put fires out quickly, especially in close quarters, when the Naval Research Laboratory and 3M developed them in 1960. For the same reason, they are yet employed on Navy ships, whereby fires that break out around aircraft, munitions, or equipment, will invariably transpire in small spaces.

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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.
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