|Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., one of hundreds of U.S. military facilities found to have excess levels of toxic PFAS. Photo: U.S. Air Force. Click to enlarge.
TipSheet: List of Toxics Near Military Sites May Include Leads for Reporters
There may be a site near you where the toxic chemical family PFAS has contaminated drinking water. And that could be news, as public concern about PFAS in drinking water is already high in many parts of the country — and showing up in more places every day.
Here are some ways to find the story and some tips for evaluating it.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class that includes thousands of chemicals. They are used for nonstick coatings, firefighting foams, food packaging and manufacturing, among other things. Many are chemically stable and long-lived, and they can accumulate and stay in the human body and the environment for a long time.
One of the more common ways PFAS get into water is when firefighting foam is washed off of an airplane firefighting site, typically an airport or air base. Washed-off foam can end up in groundwater, including aquifers people use for drinking wells.
In 2018, the Pentagon gave Congress a list of all known contaminated military sites, and the Military Times promptly acquired and published the list here. Incidentally, the Military Times’ Tara Copp has been a leader in covering this issue (see examples of her reporting here, here and here).
It’s worth knowing that the Pentagon and White House were reluctant to release the base list until Congress demanded it.
PFAS in drinking water has been an issue for years, often causing very intense local worry, uproar and outrage.
Sources are hardly limited to military bases — they include commercial and civil airports, manufacturing facilities and other sites. PFAS contaminated drinking water near a West Virginia chemical plant more than a decade ago.
Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in partnership with states and local utilities, is supposed to regulate drinking water contamination. But EPA has been unable to regulate PFAS for many years.
Playing a part in the action are the sheer number of chemicals involved, technologies for testing and control, scientific disagreement about health thresholds, money, lawsuits, bureaucracy and politics.
In February, EPA made a considerable show of announcing that it was launching an “action plan” to deal with PFAS. But critics say it does not really set hard deadlines for action.
Meanwhile, some states are going ahead and setting their own standards. That won’t be an easy task, but most agree it is urgent.
The new list of PFAS-linked military sites is helpful.
But don’t automatically trust the military
to give unbiased information about site contamination.
The new list of PFAS-linked military sites is helpful. But don’t automatically trust the military to give unbiased information about site contamination, since it ultimately will have to mitigate or clean up the mess, at considerable expense. A March 2019 New York Times article (may require subscription) details how the military has been pushing for weaker standards.
And here’s a tip: PFAS are just one of the chemical types contaminating military bases.
Why it matters
Nobody wants contaminants in their water. Possible health effects are the main reason people are concerned about PFAS. Different PFAS chemicals have been studied to different degrees and a lot more knowledge is needed to gauge risk for all of them.
But according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS may:
- affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and older children
- lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- increase cholesterol levels
- affect the immune system
- increase the risk of cancer
There is, however, still a lot of disagreement about which PFAS chemicals are how toxic at what concentrations and exposures.
If you find that some PFAS chemicals are present in your aquifer or drinking water, your job is just beginning. There are a lot more questions that need answering.
- Talk to local utilities, public health agencies and state drinking water agencies to get their assessment. Talk to local activists. Go to public meetings. Get any reports.
- What particular PFAS chemicals are in the water? Where are they found?
- What public and private wells draw from that water? Talk to landowners. Has their water been tested?
- Where did the contamination originally come from? Talk to groundwater experts. What suspect aviation or industrial operations are nearby?
- What are the concentrations of the contaminant in the water at different places? What actual exposures do people receive when they drink the water? And over what period of time? How does this affect vulnerable populations like infants or pregnant women?
- The EPA can help with basic information.
- The Defense Department list is a key starting point for anyone near a military base.
- Your state’s drinking water regulatory agency or public health department is likely to be a useful source of info about your particular area.
- The Environmental Working Group, or EWG, has been compiling a list of sites contaminated by PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical in the PFAS family used in the process of making Teflon. The EWG list is map-based and available online here (and includes the Defense Department list as well).
- Northeastern University has also been maintaining a PFAS “site tracker” list. It overlaps the EWG list.
- The Association of State Drinking Water Administrators can offer policy perspectives.
SEJournal has also reported on PFAS. Check out these recent articles:
- TipSheet: In 2019, PFAS Chemicals Will Show Up in Drinking Water … and Headlines
- TipSheet: Are Fluorinated Chemicals Contaminating Your Local Drinking Water?
- WatchDog: Media Object as EPA Bars Reporters from Drinking Water ‘Summit’
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 12. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.