Friday, May 03, 2024

Companies aren't the only ones that spread the use of 'forever chemicals;' the U.S. military is also responsible

Firefighting foam was created in the 1960s.
(Adobe Stock photo)
Commercial product companies aren't the only ones to blame for PFAS, also known as "forever chemicals," making their way into U.S. soil and drinking water. Through its extensive use of firefighting foam, the U.S. military has also contributed to the slowly degrading and noxious chemicals spreading across the country, reports Sachi Kitajima Mulkey of Grist. "The Department of Defense is among the nation's biggest users of firefighting foam and says 80% of active and decommissioned bases require cleanup."

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't consider any exposure to PFOA and PFOS, two of the most toxic PFAS, safe. In mid-April, the agency also "designated these two compounds' hazardous substances' under the federal Superfund law, making it easier to force polluters to shoulder the costs of cleaning them up," Mulkey explains. "Meeting these regulations means that almost all of the 715 military sites and surrounding communities under Defense Department investigation for contamination will likely require remediation."

The history of PFAS chemicals dates back to a 1930s lab accident, but their extensive commercial use in products began in the 1950s and 60s. Mulkey reports, "In the 1960s, the Defense Department worked with 3M, one of the largest manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, to develop a foam called AFFF that can extinguish high-temperature fires. The PFAS act as a surfactant, helping the material spread more quickly. By the 1970s, every military base, Navy ship, civilian airport, and fire station regularly used AFFF."

From that point, PFAS chemicals were used in everything from cookware to raincoats to carpets. It would take decades for government agencies and communities to realize that these human-made, fluorine-based chemicals were harmful to animals and humans. Once their harmfulness came to light, another set of problems evolved — how to remove the chemicals from the environment, which research has proven is both expensive and difficult to accomplish.

Today, military sites have some of the most extensive cleanup work. "Congress ordered the department to publish the findings of drinking and groundwater tests on and around bases," Mulkey reports. "Results showed nearly 50 sites with extremely high levels of contamination and hundreds more with levels above what was then the EPA's health advisory. Following further congressional pressure, the military announced plans to implement interim cleanup measures at three dozen locations."

"Nationwide, the Environmental Working Group found unsafe water in wells near 63 military bases in 29 states."

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