A special report digs deep and uncovers a massive mess of PFCs.
by Melissa Breyer
In 2006, the EPA helped arrange a deal in which the eight American companies that make or use perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) would stop doing so. This was important. As part of a larger class known as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), the EPA put them in the bucket of “emerging contaminants” – chemicals or materials that are characterized by “a perceived, potential, or real threat to human health or the environment.” The companies say that they have complied, yet as of now the EPA has yet to set a safe level of lifetime exposure to the chemicals.
Which is a problem. These man-made chemicals have been linked to a disturbing array of health effects, including obesity in children, reproductive problems and cancers. Used as a surface-active agent in a slew of products from coating additives – like Teflon – to cleaning products, these compounds don’t break down under typical conditions and are extremely persistent in the environment, says the EPA.
And while PFCs may no longer be in active production, they are still being used.
In a special report published on The Intercept, writer Sharon Lerner pieces together an alarming picture detailing the use of PFC-containing firefighting foam in the United States, primarily at military bases.
Jet fuel loves to burn and is notoriously immune to water, so around 50 years ago chemical giant 3M, in conjunction with the Navy, developed a product to solve the problem of extinguishing airplane crash fires. Known as Aqueous Film-Forming Foam (AFFF), the lather smothers jet fuel fires and the military has been using vast amounts of it ever since. It’s used for both emergencies and for regular training exercises in which soldiers learn how to put out flames. As you’ve probably guessed by now, the product contains PFOS, as well as various compounds that can break down into PFOA and other PFCs.
“For decades,” Lerner writes, “no one thought to construct barriers at these sites to contain the foam, which sank down through the earth into the water table.” And now, testing in or near military bases across the country reveals PFCs in the ground and drinking water.
In 2009 the EPA released a Provisional Health Advisory on PFOS and PFOA which calculated the maximum levels that we should be exposed to through drinking water: For PFOS it was 0.2 ppb; for PFOA, 0.4 ppb.
“In some of these places, huge amounts of chemicals from the foam have been found in soil and water. At Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, for instance, one of the telomers that can decay into a chemical similar to PFOA was found at 14,600 ppb, “ Lerner writes. “Near the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nevada, where fire-training exercises were conducted for more than 30 years, PFOA has been recorded in the groundwater at levels as high as 6,720 ppb. And, at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan, where crash trainings also took place for more than three decades, one plume of groundwater had concentrations of total PFCs between 100,000 and 250,000 ppb.”
It’s a tremendous mess and while the Air Force, Navy, and the Department of Defense are endeavoring to clean it up, the military continues to use PFC-containing firefighting foam for emergencies and training, notes Lerner. “The military has the largest stockpile of PFOS-containing firefighting foam in the United States, with around a million gallons, according to a 2011 estimate by the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition, an industry group,” she writes. “While the EU and Canada have banned the use of stockpiled foam containing PFOS, the U.S. has no restrictions on its use.”
In December of 2013, the small Swedish town of Ronneby discovered elevated levels of PFOS in the drinking water, also linked to firefighting foam. The response? It was quickly and widely reported to the public. Clean water was given out and blood samples were taken by February, test results were reported by March. Within months a Swedish university began emergency research to study the local health effects and the government organized a network of national agencies to address the issue. It’s become a priority there; here … the U.S. could learn a thing or two.
To see a map of PFC-contaminated drinking water sites in the U.S. and to read the report in its entirety, click over to The Intercept.