Back in 2011, the Defense Department’s Emerging Chemical Program issued a “risk alert” detailing the hazards of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known collectively as PFAS, found in aqueous film-forming foam used to fight vehicle and aircraft fires. Then nothing happened.
Due to a tricky bit of bureaucracy, that risk alert had no muscle behind it, because it wasn’t endorsed by the Pentagon’s Emerging Chemicals of Concern Governance Council, according to an inspector general report released Friday. In short, they could put out the alert, but there was no accompanying instruction to allow them to do anything about it.
“Therefore, DoD officials were not required to plan, program, and budget for any actions in response to the 2011 risk alert,” according to the IG report. “EC Program officials did not require proactive risk management actions for PFAS‑containing AFFF until 2016.”
The report comes two years after dozens of lawmakers requested a DoD IG review of the use of PFAS on installations and exposure to those living on and around them. The IG announced the evaluation in early 2020.
DoD has been aware of the risks of PFAS for decades, including their tendency to build up in the body over time, as well as their links to cancer.
In addition to testing drinking water and installing filtering systems on installations, the military limits the use of aqueous film-forming foam to active firefighting situations. But for much of the 20th century it was also used in training, causing decades of build-up in ground water.
”This Inspector General’s report confirms that the Defense Department must urgently do more to protect service members and their families from PFAS chemicals,” Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), co-chair of the Congressional PFAS Task Force, said in a Tuesday release from the Environmental Working Group. “Due to the Defense Department’s use of firefighting foam containing PFAS chemicals, many service members, military firefighters and their families are still at risk of exposure.”
As of last fall, annual blood testing is required for DoD firefighting personnel, to monitor the levels of PFAS building up their systems.
But there are other potential sources of PFAS exposure, according to the IG report, which the Pentagon has mostly overlooked, setting back any efforts for a more enterprise-wide approach to decontamination and tracking of health outcomes.
“This occurred because DoD officials were focused on AFFF, a major source of potential PFAS exposure, and not on all sources of potential PFAS exposure caused by DoD activities,” the report reads. “As a result, people and the environment may continue to be exposed to preventable risks from other PFAS‑containing materials.”
And despite that focus on AFFF, DoD research has not yielded any candidates for replace it.
It’s not just that there is so much to clean up, the deputy assistant defense secretary for environment and energy resilience said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing. It’s that technology is still trying to catch up to the task.
“The rate of progress is defined primarily by the rules that govern our physical world. Physics, chemistry, science,” Richard Kidd, deputy assistant defense secretary for environment and energy resilience, said during a House Appropriations Committee hearing in May. “Based on what we know today — and known technology ― frankly, it will be years before we fully define the scope of the problem and with that definition can reflect it in our budget request, and after that, probably decades before cleanup is complete.”
While there have been risk management requirements in place since 2016, there were no central efforts overseen by Pentagon leadership until 2019, when a PFAS Task Force stood up, charged with reviewing the depth and breadth of the risks and offering recommendations to remedy them.
To fill in the gaps, the IG recommended writing down requirements for the Emerging Chemical Program to begin risk management measures, including informing DoD personnel and neighbors of DoD installations of their potential exposures.
The acting assistant defense secretary for sustainment agreed with those recommendations, according to the report.
Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.