Contamination of drinking water supplies serving military bases and their host communities by a class of chemicals associated with the past use of firefighting foam likely is more widespread — affecting more drinking water systems and people — than previously believed, according to a new analysis by ProPublica. DOD relied on a testing method which could detect PFOS and PFOA — along with 12 other PFAS chemicals — but was not capable of detecting the presence of dozens of other PFAS compounds, the independent, nonprofit news organization found. And because Congress only requested data for contamination by PFOS and PFOA, the department only reported the results for those two chemicals and not the other 12 compounds its testing identified.
“If you were going to spend $200 million testing DOD sites across the country, wouldn’t you want to test for all of the chemicals you know you used?” asked Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics.
After retesting water samples at several defense sites using the most advanced testing available, an environmental researcher at Oregon State University who receives DOD funding found that many lesser known PFAS compounds were nearly uniformly present. At one site, for example, where PFOS was detected at 78,000 parts per trillion, an obscure PFAS compound was present at nearly three times that concentration, according to Jennifer Field, a professor of environmental and molecular toxicology. “You’re starting to get this idea that more complex chemistry was used at these sites than was picked up in the tests, and that’s kind of the punchline,” she said.
In its March 2018 report to Congress, the Pentagon said drinking water systems at 36 installations recorded elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA, while 90 installations showed elevated levels of the contaminants following groundwater testing at on- and off-base locations.
A DOD spokeswoman told ProPublica its testing methods were the best available and said it is difficult to fully assess risks from PFAS because the Environmental Protection Agency has not regulated that class of chemicals. The department’s research group has a program under way aimed at enhancing the test methods and detecting more PFAS compounds, she added, but indicated no alternatives were ready for use.
Air Force photo by Grace Nichols