Firefighting Foam in Water Near Bases Gets Congressional Attention

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Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sharese Grey tests a sample from a sprinkler during an aqueous film forming foam countermeasure wash-down aboard the USS Ronald Reagan during sea trials south of Japan, May 12, 2018. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate
Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Sharese Grey tests a sample from a sprinkler during an aqueous film forming foam countermeasure wash-down aboard the USS Ronald Reagan during sea trials south of Japan, May 12, 2018. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Kenneth Abbate

Most of us who have been in the military have either heard of or used firefighting foam. It is commonly known as either Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) or perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

While you may remember the odor of AFFF and know that it will put out burning jet fuel, you may not know how hazardous it is in its own right. In fact, it's so bad that more than 180 countries have banned its production and use except in emergencies.

The U.S. military has used AFFF for more than 50 years but has been replacing the older, more hazardous stocks with a new military specification (MILSPEC) foam that experts say doesn't have as many bad health effects.

The problem is that the stuff that was used over the decades managed to find its way into water supplies near military bases.

Why Is AFFF Bad?

Experts say that some of the chemicals in AFFF won't break down into other compounds; they will remain in their current state forever. The problem is that their current state is toxic when ingested by people. The chemicals in AFFF are everywhere in today's environment. Some of the compounds in firefighting foam are also found in Teflon, so there is no way to tell what a lethal dose is or to track exactly how a person comes into contact with it.

What is known is that water supplies near military bases test at higher levels for those chemicals than other locations. Some have concentrations thousands of times higher than those declared safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

And, since the stuff won't break down into other chemicals over time and it finds its way into drinking water, people who live on or near bases are likely to be exposed to a lot of it. It builds up in their bodies, possibly causing bad things to happen.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, the likelihood of health problems from exposure to these chemicals depends on several factors, including the concentration, frequency and duration of exposure. The VA says that more research is needed to understand the link between exposure to the chemicals in firefighting foam and health effects in humans.

Studies in humans suggest that some of the chemicals in firefighting foam may be associated with:

  • Fertility issues and pregnancy-induced hypertension/preeclampsia
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Changes in the immune system
  • Increased risk of certain cancers (e.g., testicular and kidney cancer)
  • Changes in fetal and child development
  • Liver damage
  • Increased risk of thyroid disease
  • Increased risk of asthma

But, the VA says the overall scientific and medical evidence is currently inconclusive.

Congress Takes Action

Congress, apparently realizing it doesn't need another Agent Orange, Burn Pit or Camp LeJeune contaminated water illness issue on its hands, decided to take initial actions to attempt to lessen the impact these chemicals may have on military members, their families and communities located near military installations.

Related: List of Bases Contaminated with PFAS Chemicals Expected to Grow, Pentagon Says

In the 2020 budget, the Defense Department has been directed to work with states and localities to monitor drinking water for bad chemicals related to firefighting foam, as well as "other emerging contaminants of concern." The law also prohibits the military from using AFFF for training and directs the military to destroy all the older, more dangerous stock.

The military will also buy some properties that have been contaminated by firefighting foam and pay the existing owners to relocate. For years, the military has been providing water filtration or bottled drinking water to civilians whose wells show signs of contamination from firefighting foam.

One more provision of the new law directs the DoD to create a website that provides a clearinghouse for information about the exposure of military member, veterans, families and their communities to chemicals found in firefighting foam. The information provided on the website will include information on testing, cleanup and recommended available treatment methodologies.

Related:

Army Firefighting Foam Factsheet

Navy Information About Firefighting Foam Exposure

Air Force Firefighting Foam Snapshot

What About the VA?

For its part, the Department of Veterans Affairs says that if you are concerned about health problems associated with exposure to firefighting foam during your military service, you should talk to your health care provider or local VA Environmental Health Coordinator. It also says you can file a disability claim if you believe you have health issues related to contact with the chemicals.

Related: VA's firefighting foam information page.

There hasn't been an official declaration or correlation by the government that exposure to firefighting foam can cause specific illnesses. However, the recent legislation and action by the DoD to end its use and clean up areas near many military installations is a step toward fixing a perceived problem. It took the government several years to take action on Agent Orange, burn pits and other hazards; it seems to be moving much more urgently in the case of firefighting foam contamination.

If you have an illness you believe is related to chemical exposure, you should contact the VA and get it checked out. The worst thing that could happen is it will deny you; more likely, they will work to help you and maybe help a few fellow veterans down the road as well.

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