Perfluorooctane sulfonate or perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOS and PFOA, are man-made chemicals used to make items heat or water resistant and found in a range of everyday items such as take-out food wrappers, no-stick cookware, and clothing. The military also uses the chemicals in highly concentrated foam to put out petroleum-based fires.
In the 1970s, the Department of Defense started using aqueous film forming foam (AFFF), which contained high concentrations of PFOS to extinguish specific types of fires such as aircraft/jet fuel fires. The problem with PFOS and PFOA is that, unlike other chemicals, they do not degrade over time in the environment. Most are found to accumulate in groundwater and find their way into local drinking water supplies.
In 2000, the only US manufacturer, 3M started phasing out the use of PFOS and PFOAs due to the tendency of the chemicals to build up in human tissue. DuPont was using the compound under the name of C8 and marketing it as Teflon. When 3M stopped production, DuPont built a factory to start producing the chemicals.
Due to several lawsuits against DuPont, several studies were conducted over the years on the impact of PFOS and PFOAs on humans. A study in 2004 by Dr. James Dahlgren, a nationally known toxicologist, identified increased risks of prostate cancer, Hodgkin’s lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myelomas. In 2012, scientists at Emory University identified similar conditions between individuals who were exposed at the DuPont factories that manufactured C8. Workers showed a three-fold increased risk of mesothelioma or chronic kidney disease and a two-fold increased risk of developing diabetes mellitus Type 2, kidney cancer, and non-cancer kidney diseases. The EPA has also linked the chemicals to low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations, liver effects (tissue damage), immune effects (antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and cholesterol changes.
DuPont itself conducted medical studies on the chemicals as far back as the 1960s that showed liver damage in animals. One study showed the compound bound to the blood’s plasma proteins. In 1981, 3M found the chemicals caused birth defects in rats and informed DuPont. DuPont reviewed births of their employees and found two birth defects of seven recent births and did not inform the EPA of the information or the 3M study. By the 90s, DuPont was aware that C8 caused testicular, pancreatic, and liver tumors in lab animals but again, failed to inform the EPA. In 2006, eight major global manufacturers agreed to stop production of the chemicals.
The EPA studies are specific that exposure is through drinking water and not food ingestion or skin exposure. 3M originally informed DuPont when they began purchasing the chemicals that PFOS and PFOA were never to be disposed into the water, only incinerated. Several lawsuits show that DuPont dumped tons of the chemicals into groundwater sites at their manufacturing facilities.
Most people who come in contact with PFOS and PFOA are exposed to such low levels that there is no expectation of harm. However, because of the high concentrations used in the AFFF, those who lived and worked on particular military installations may be at risk of developing certain conditions. In addition to kidney conditions, the Pentagon has found that PFOS and PFOA are linked to developmental delays in fetuses and infants. In March 2018 report to the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon publically listed the full scope of the known contaminant, a first in their history.
The list included over 90 military sites that reported either on-base or off-base drinking water or groundwater contamination where the levels tested above the EPA’s acceptable levels of PFOS or PFOAs. Here is a complete listing of all bases and BRAC bases affected, including those overseas.
Records from a law firm in Philadelphia show that the federal government was aware of the groundwater contamination near several bases caused by PFOS and PFOAs. Despite this knowledge, the military continues to use the firefighting foam AFFF. While the military is replacing the older version of its foam, the new version still contains PFAS, a shorter chemical chain of the PFOS compound, which exits the body faster but still accumulates in the blood and other tissues. It also does not break down in the environment just as the older chemicals.
But there is a viable alternative…..
3M developed a fluorine-free foam that tested equally as well as the AFFF for putting out jet fuel fires set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. However, after a first failed test (by 9 seconds), the Navy refused to pursue modifications to meet their standards and never adopted the foam. DuPont has lobbied heavily against this product with the Department of Defense.
If you are a military veteran who has experienced one of the conditions below and feel you were exposed to contaminated groundwater at one of the bases listed on the Pentagon’s report, you may be eligible for compensation from the VA or a class action lawsuit.