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The U.S. Military is facing massive costs, criticism because of toxic substances polluting the drinking water of numerous bases where members of the armed forces and their families reside.
So far, 106 bases have tested positive for per-and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) — chemicals found in firefighting foams that have been widely used by the military for years.
The House Oversight and Reform environment subcommittee heard testimony last week from experts, witnesses who say contamination cleanup could cost billions of dollars.
“[I felt] stabbed in the back,” Army Staff Sgt. Samuel Fortune told The New York Times. “We give our lives and our bodies for our country, and our government does not live up to their end of the deal.”
Causes for Concern
PFAS are connected to many extremely adverse health complications. These include different forms of cancer, thyroid hormone disruption, frail childhood immunity, and low infant birth weights, among others.
When people face long-term exposure to PFAS, these chemicals will begin to build up in the body. Then they tend to remain in their system, which will result in the above health problems.
No EPA or federal rules regulate production or monitoring of these chemicals and their presence in the drinking water supply, according to the Times.
“As PFAS contamination becomes a growing concern for communities across the state and country, it’s time for the EPA to step up and declare these chemicals as hazardous substances,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, who joined bipartisan legislation that would require EPA to declare PFA as hazardous substances, in a statement. “Local communities shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their water supply.”
Latinos Face Contamination
Latinos, who make up 12% of active-duty military personnel, face exposure while serving their country.
That number has been growing. Latinos actively serving in the military has tripled over the last 30 years, according to the PEW Research center — which means more exposure to PFAS in that community.
The Environmental Working Group has been gathering information on this topic. They also created an interactive map that lists all the current bases, which tested positive for PFAS.
States with the large Latino populations, Texas (39.4%), California (39.1%), and Florida (25.6%), also include six or more contaminated bases. In San Antonio, Kelly Field Annex as well as a joint Air Force base shared between Lackland, Randolph, Ft. Sam Houston, and Camp Bullis, were listed as contaminated sites according to the map.
History of Turning a Blind Eye
These chemicals were initially developed in the 1960s by public-private partnerships between the military and 3M.
However, throughout the next 10 years, researchers began to see the effects PFAS had on the human body, including a buildup of toxic chemicals in human systems.
Worse, this fact was known, and kept quiet, by private companies and government agencies, for decades, according to The Intercept.
3M, developers of two of the most widely-used PFAS, faced a lawsuit concerning PFAS that resulted in the company paying the state of Minnesota (5.4% Latino) $850 million. That money went to develop water quality programs aimed to fix the problems created by the chemicals.
Momentum toward Action
The Department of Defense and EPA received backlash for not addressing the problems caused by these substances.
In February 2019, the EPA promised action concerning PFAS.
EPA expects to set new PFAS limits in drinking water by the end of the year, although critics decry the action as long overdue and not urgent enough.
“The PFAS action plan is the most comprehensive action plan for a chemical of concern ever undertaken by the agency,” said Dave Ross of the EPA, according to the Times.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a collaboration between Salud America! and the Hoffman Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT) program at UT Health- San Antonio. To find out if you are TILTed due to exposure to everyday foods, chemicals, or drugs, take a self-assessment or learn more about TILT.