The "forever chemicals" that may have contaminated water at hundreds of military installations are more dangerous than previously thought and could be harmful in even minuscule amounts, according to a new warning by the Environmental Protection Agency released Wednesday.
The agency issued the new assessment that the chemicals known as PFAS, which were widely used in the military's firefighting foam as well as more broadly for non-stick commercial products, could cause health problems in drinking water at levels "near zero and below EPA's ability to detect at this time."
The warning ramps up the urgency of the potential widespread contamination the Pentagon is grappling with at 700 active bases, National Guard facilities, shuttered installations and other properties. In December, Congress ordered the agency to deal with the issue, but full testing and cleanup of PFAS groundwater pollution in military communities is expected to take years.
"Today's decision underscores just how dangerous PFAS 'forever chemicals' are for local communities, including our service members, civilian personnel, and their families," House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., said in a statement Wednesday, adding that the Pentagon "must take action promptly and effectively in response to today's advisories."
PFAS have been linked to health problems including birth defects, cardiovascular issues, compromised immune systems and a variety of cancers. The chemicals never degrade in the environment -- or body, earning them the nickname "forever chemicals."
In its updated health adversaries Wednesday, the EPA warned that PFOA and PFOS, two of the most common types of PFAS, can cause health issues from as low as 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion, respectively. Previously, the agency said 70 parts per trillion could pose risks.
The Pentagon is currently investigating contamination at 337 facilities owned by the Army, 204 under the Air Force, 148 in the Department of the Navy, seven Defense Logistics Agency sites, and four defense facilities that are no longer in use, according to an update to Congress in April that was provided to Military.com.
The chemicals were used in firefighting foam -- known as aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF -- and spilled onto the ground, seeping into the water, during incidents and training over the decades. Now, the military, federal government, and state and local governments are struggling with how to clean up the contamination -- and how it will be paid for. The science on the effects of PFAS is still developing, and standards for environmental cleanup are still being researched.
Many key military bases across the country could be affected. For example, the military is investigating or making plans for cleanup at Fort Benning, Georgia; Fort Campbell, Kentucky; Fort Bragg, North Carolina; Fort Bliss and Fort Hood in Texas; and Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state, according to the information provided to Congress.
After initial assessments earlier this year, the department decided 80 of the installations would require no further action. But that was based on levels of contamination found to be lower than earlier EPA standards and did not take into account the new guidance released by the agency Wednesday.
The Pentagon told lawmakers in April that it was "partnering with local regulatory and governmental organizations to reach stakeholders" affected by PFAS contamination in groundwater caused by military activity. In December, it said more than $1.5 billion had been spent on research and cleanup.
The military has pledged to phase out AFFF in firefighting and is searching for substitutes. When reached for comment Wednesday, the Pentagon pointed to the updates provided to lawmakers earlier this year.
Wednesday's action by the EPA was meant to spur local communities to notify residents of contamination or take mitigation steps such as filtering water, but it does not set enforceable limits on the amount of PFAS that can be present in drinking water. The agency previously announced plans to regulate PFAS in drinking water by 2023.
Lawmakers for years have been pushing the Pentagon to gain a better understanding of the extent of PFAS contamination at military sites, phase out the foam and clean up contaminated installations.
Under last year's annual defense policy bill, the Pentagon was required to create rules to prevent and clean up firefighting foam spills, test for PFAS substances at all National Guard facilities, and publicly disclose the results of Defense Department water tests for PFAS.
In the version of the National Defense Authorization Act now making its way through the House Armed Services Committee, lawmakers are also seeking to make the Pentagon give them regular briefings on its progress phasing out PFAS products, as well as justify the continued use of any PFAS items that have been "deemed an essential use."
Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., vowed to use the version of the defense bill being worked on by the Senate Armed Services Committee to reauthorize an ongoing PFAS health impact study.
"As numerous communities and affected families in New Hampshire know all too well, the impact of PFAS exposure in our water supplies is frightening and wholly unacceptable," she said in a statement. "Every household should have confidence in the safety of the water coming out of their tap."
-- Travis Tritten can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Tritten.