Energy & Environment

Watchdog: Lack of DOD action may have caused ‘preventable’ risks from ‘forever chemicals’

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The U.S. Pentagon.

A report from an internal watchdog says that a lack of action from the Defense Department may have led to people being exposed to “preventable” risks from toxic chemicals. 

The department’s inspector general (IG) said in a report issued last week that in 2011, Defense officials issued an alert saying that firefighting foam that had a type of chemicals known as PFAS in it contained “chemicals that present human health and environmental risks and require special handling and disposal.”

It said that this alert wasn’t translated into action, however, because officials within the program didn’t develop and present their recommendations to an emerging chemicals council — and the department was ultimately not required to act on the risk alert. 

The watchdog also found that Department of Defense (DOD) officials including firefighters were not aware of the risk alert. 

Risk management actions for PFAS in firefighting foam weren’t required for several more years, until 2016. 

All in all, the inspector general said that because of the lack of action “people and the environment may have been exposed to preventable risks from PFAS‑containing [firefighting foam].”

PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is a class of chemicals that have been linked to health issues including increased cancer risks and immune system impacts. 

It has been found in military firefighting foam and a variety of household products and drinking water. Recent reports have also indicated that the chemicals have been used in fracking. 

PFAS are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because of their lingering persistence in human bodies and the environment. 

The inspector general report also knocked the department for not taking “proactive” steps to mitigate PFAS from any materials other than firefighting foam. 

It said that “as of July 2021, [emerging chemicals] program officials had not issued any [risk management actions] requiring actions at DoD installations” for PFAS-containing materials besides firefighting foam. 

In a written response, Paul Cramer, who’s carrying out the job of the assistant secretary of Defense for sustainment, pushed back on part of the report. 

He said that the department’s current instruction “directs the assessment of risks associated with emerging chemicals of concern across the DoD enterprise.”

The report also said the department should do more to look into the impacts of PFAS on its firefighters. As the department tests for PFAS in the blood of its firefighters, the report suggested that the Pentagon should also analyze the results on an agencywide level. 

The DOD “is missing an opportunity to capture comprehensive PFAS exposure data for DoD firefighters to be used for risk management, including future studies to assess long‑term health effects relating to PFAS exposure,” it said. 

Thomas Constable, the acting assistant secretary of Defense for readiness, wrote in a written response that the department will track the number of tests performed and the number of firefighters planning to receive tests. 

Constable also said the department will provide blood level data to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is part of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, for its PFAS research and that a Navy and Marine Corps center will also perform trend analysis on the lab results. 

The report came after a group of lawmakers asked the watchdog to look into the department’s handling of PFAS and its conclusions drew some ire from Capitol Hill. 

“It’s irresponsible, it’s incomprehensible that any agency of government would take this sort of cavalier approach to a real, serious threat to the health and safety of service members, of families, of civilians but especially the Department of Defense. The whole purpose of the DOD is to protect Americans,” said Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) in an interview. 

Kildee called for a “culture change” at the department on PFAS and said it should be achieved by making people aware of how the department is handling the issue and through top-down changes in the administration. 

“We have to expose the reality of how the Department of Defense is handling this, and this is one of the reasons that I led this effort to get the IG to take a look at this,” he said, adding that he hopes that “the administration also will take time to direct, through the secretary of defense right on down, that this be taken more seriously.”

Tags Dan Kildee Firefighting Firefighting foam forever chemicals Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances PFAS
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