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Security

PFAS problem prompts Pentagon pledge

26 April 2019
A USAF firefighter pulls a fire hose toward a simulated aircraft fire during a training exercise at Joint Base Andrews in August 2018. The DoD has recognised the need to remove potentially harmful substances associated with firefighting operations at its bases. Source: USAF/Staff Sgt Delano Scott

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan has promised rapid, “open and transparent” action worldwide to address the presence of toxic chemicals in drinking water on or near US military installations worldwide.

“The Department of Defense [DoD] takes its cleanup responsibility seriously and undertakes these actions in an open and transparent manner,” Shanahan pledged in a 16 April letter to Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire senator for the Democrats who represents adults and children exposed to contaminated water from Pease International Tradeport, a former USAF base.

The problem involves Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of manmade chemicals that includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonate acid (PFOS). PFAS is the main ingredient in long-chain C8 fluorinated aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) that has been used for decades by military firefighters to extinguish flammable liquid (Class B) fuel fires.

In February the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a PFAS Action Plan to eradicate PFOA and PFOS from drinking water. It initiated moves to establish an enforceable maximum contaminant standard for the two chemicals and measures to regulate them as hazardous substances. The PFAS Action Plan is partly derived from a four-step proposal by the former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt in 2018.

There have been proven instances of well water contamination near military airfields where AFFF was used in firefighter training or after an aircraft crash. The 2016 EPA health advisory for PFOA and PFOS described them as “contaminants of concern”, while studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS above certain levels may contribute to adverse health effects such as cancer and liver damage. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called PFAS “one of the most seminal public health challenges of the coming decades”.

Against this background, the US military is replacing its existing toxic C8 AFFF stocks with short-chain C6 fluorosurfactant-based AFFFs or fluorine free foams (F3), which are designed to be more environmentally sound and provide adequate protection.

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