DoD has no clue how many people it’s exposed to toxic chemicals

Maj. April Widman is the commander of the 317th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron. She leads airmen who work in nine different Air Force specialties that provide all aspects of flight line maintenance and are responsible for the health of the C-130J Super Hercules fleet at Dyess Air Force Base, Texas. (Staff Sgt. David Owsianka/Air Force)


Defense Department officials have said in the past that it may take decades to clean up all of the contaminated groundwater surrounding hundreds of military installations known to have used firefighting foam comprised of toxic chemicals. Another issue will be determining what “cleaned up” means.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets the policy and standards that DoD and the military services have used to evaluate the safety of their drinking water, but according to the EPA’s inspector general, the agency is sorely lacking in its ability not only to identify toxic chemicals, but to evaluate their danger. That makes it difficult to determine what’s a safe limit, in compliance with the Toxic Substances Control Act, which requires studies on a host of chemicals.

“The EPA [inspector general’s office] found that the EPA did not have the internal capacity to conduct even the first set of 10 TSCA risk evaluations in a timely manner,” Sean O’Donnell, who is also DoD’s acting IG, told a Senate panel on Thursday. “Despite the reassignment of up to 19 full-time equivalents to help with those 10 evaluations, the EPA still failed to meet the deadline.”

O’Donnell’s testimony brings into question how DoD can set goals for clean-up with out sound, updated EPA guidelines.

“Along the same lines, the EPA’s drinking water health advisories have not kept pace with emerging chemicals of concern,” he added. “Health advisories are important to communicate the risks posed by chemicals, including PFAS; however, we found that out of 212 health advisories issued by the EPA, at least 75 percent were issued prior to 2000, with at least 50 percent being issued prior to 1990.”

The hearing focused on the findings of a DoD IG report released in July, which found that the department hadn’t responded to known threats of PFAS contamination, largely because of gaps in oversight by the Pentagon’s Emerging Chemicals of Concern Governance Council.

The report also found that DoD focused most of its efforts on the chemicals found in aqueous film-forming foam, the bubbly stuff used to quell aircraft and vehicle fires, rather than other potential exposures from military service.

DoD officials who testified were not able to say how many service members ― or their families, civilians or residents of neighborhoods around installations ― have been exposed to these chemicals because of DoD.

The department is also not required to inform anyone of potential exposure, though the version of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act under consideration by the Senate has language that would require at least some notifications.

Service members who are concerned about potential exposures can get more information, the Pentagon’s acting head of safety and occupational health told lawmakers.

“I know, currently, if I’m a firefighter [with] a question about a future health effect that we provide a factsheet and recommend they talk with their supervisor, and supporting occupational medical clinic, to address their concern and discuss any additional information or answer questions,” Laura Macaluso said during her testimony. “And we also are collaborating with VA for to address any retired or non current firefighters in the department.”

But like many other toxic exposures to service members, DoD is not prepared to implicitly blame any illnesses on known exposures to PFAS.

Because PFAS exposure is part of every life, including from products like Scotchgard and Teflon, it’s “extremely difficult to distinguish firefighters’ exposure to PFAS within their occupational setting,” Macaluso said, “and to differentiate those exposures from other sources of PFAS.”

So along with needed updates to EPA guidelines, as well as better technology to identify and remove PFAS from groundwater, DoD needs its only guidelines for determining whether the adverse effects of PFAS exposure are service-connected.

“We are monitoring several ongoing studies to examine sources and types of PFAS exposure and the possible related health effects,” Macaluso said. “The results of the scientific research on the health effects are needed before we can develop the occupational exposure limits and implement systematic workplace exposure characterization.”

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members. Follow on Twitter @Meghann_MT



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About the Author

Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.