The number is shocking: at least 704 current and former military bases in the United States are likely to be contaminated by PFAs, or “forever chemicals.”
Just as shocking is that the number of people at military installations drinking contaminated water is believed to be far higher – potentially by hundreds of thousands – than what the Defense Department (DOD) has claimed in a recent report.
PFAs – perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances – are a group of man-made chemicals that don’t break down in the environment and build up in our bodies. They are associated with several diseases, including cancer.
The DOD’s report also downplays the health hazards of forever chemicals. However, a review performed by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that a DOD study concerning an assessment of PFAs was incomplete in several ways.
About the DOD Report
In April 2022, the DOD released an assessment of the health effects of PFAs on members of the Armed Forces and veterans. This assessment included:
- An analysis that considers scientific evidence linking the health effects of PFAs on individuals who were exposed to these chemicals at military installations
- An estimate of the number of Armed Forces members and veterans who may have been exposed to PFAs
According to the DOD report, 24 military installations with a combined population of 175,000 people have been impacted by drinking water containing PFOA and PFOS, the two most toxic PFAs. However, it is believed the DOD severely undercounted the number of bases affected by PFA-contaminated water. The EWG maintains that at least 116 installations with a population of over 640,000 have likely been impacted by water containing levels of forever chemicals that would be deemed unsafe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
What is Missing in the DOD Report?
A review of the DOD report by the Environmental Working Group found it was incomplete and contained several information gaps. Aside from undercounting the number of bases impacted by water contaminated with PFAs, the EWG found the report was lacking in the following areas:
- Incomplete estimate of contaminated water: The DOD report was missing installations where PFAs were detected in drinking water systems.
- Failure to look at past drinking water exposure: The DOD’s estimate of service members exposed to contaminated drinking water doesn’t include people who previously served or lived at installations. The 175,000 estimate only reflects how many people might be drinking PFA-contaminated water at any given time.
- Failure to consider all possible health effects of PFAs: The DOD study didn’t contain a meta-analysis of all harms associated with exposure to PFAs in drinking water. For example, the report did not cite an increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer, a health effect recognized by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and the National Academy of Sciences.
- Disregarding the impact of PFA exposure on pregnant individuals: The DOD report did not consider any of the 239 studies that examine how PFAs impact maternal or fetal health. According to the DOD, these categories were excluded because the study only focused on military members and veterans.
What are the Health Effects of PFAs?
Known as “forever chemicals” globally. Even small amounts have been linked to severe adverse health effects, including kidney cancer, low birth weight, harm to the immune and reproductive systems, and an increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease. In addition, PFAs contaminate public drinking water. An EWG and Northeastern University report found that a staggering 19 million people are exposed to contaminated drinking water.
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