National Security

New Pentagon chief attacks water contamination linked to cancers on his first day

What is PFAS?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that have been linked to birth defects and cancers.
Up Next
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that have been linked to birth defects and cancers.

The Pentagon is launching a task force to look at the potential impact and dangers that chemical compounds used in military firefighting foam have had on military bases and the families who live there, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced on his first day in office.

Per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are compounds found in everyday plastics and household products, but are concentrated in firefighting foam which the military has used for decades. That foam has seeped into the groundwater and well water surrounding military bases and has been found in drinking water sources.

Last year the Pentagon published a list of hundreds of contaminated private and public water sources on military bases and in the communities surrounding those installations. The compounds have been linked to cancers, reproductive problems and birth defects.

Esper told reporters that he had issued a memo to create the task force, making it one of his first actions as defense secretary and signaling that it is a high priority.

The task force will look at all of the issues surrounding the contamination, “whether it’s cleanup, whether it’s finding an alternative with the current firefighting foam ... you name it,” Esper said.

The task force will include the Environmental Protection Agency, the military services, the Pentagon’s health affairs policy office and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Esper directed the task force to be underway within 30 days, and provide a report within six months.

While the foam is no longer used in training exercises, it remains in use elsewhere in the military, particularly on Navy ships.

The Pentagon’s 2018 review found groundwater contamination at many of the installations it tested.

“I’ve asked them to include the EPA and other parts of the interagency to make sure we go after this problem very aggressively,” Esper said.

Veterans or their families across the United States have reported cancers and testified before Congress on the suspected impact contaminated water on military bases has had on their lives.

Read Next

When asked what the Pentagon’s outreach would be to the veteran community, Esper said, “I think we need to be following the science on this, and one of those agencies we should be talking to is the VA.”

“We need to understand the problem and make sure we have our hands fully around it. Follow the science, and then obviously if there’s a relationship there (between the PFAs and cancers) we need to do our due diligence,” he said.

Tara Copp is the national military and veterans affairs correspondent for McClatchy. She has reported extensively through the Middle East, Asia and Europe to cover defense policy and its impact on the lives of service members. She was previously the Pentagon bureau chief for Military Times and a senior defense analyst for the U.S. Government Accountability Office. She is the author of the award-winning book “The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story.”
  Comments