Since the early 1900s, the US Army’s reckless use and negligent disposal of chemical hazards whose long-term risks weren’t sufficiently understood have inadvertently affected countless service members. In notorious instances such as North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base, toxic substances leached into the base’s drinking water sources for over 30 years until the appalling extent of the issue was uncovered.
During the heyday of contamination (1953 – 1987), close to 1 million troops and civilians who served, lived, and worked on Camp Lejeune were unintentionally exposed to the base’s tainted water. Among the detected hazards were over 60 toxins exceeding safety levels by 240 – 3,400 times, including carcinogens like trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE), benzene, and vinyl chloride.
Commonly known as “forever chemicals” due to their strong molecular bonds, PFAS are a class of over 12,000 man-made compounds that don’t degrade naturally. The variants known as PFOA and PFOS were the basis of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a flame-retardant solution employed by the military for firefighter training purposes and to combat difficult jet fuel blazes. Since the 1970s, AFFF was used extensively on military installations throughout Texas.
Although possessing formidable physical properties which garnered their application in a broad range of products, from non-stick cookware to water-proof clothing and fat-repelling fast food packaging, PFAS are also environmentally-persistent hazards to human health. Prolonged exposure to forever chemicals has been linked to several forms of cancer, decreased vaccine response in children, lower birth weights, thyroid issues, and increased cholesterol.
In 2016, the EPA created lifetime health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, limiting acceptable concentrations to just 70 parts per trillion (ppt).
After testing at Camp Lejeune uncovered elevated PFAS concentrations (179,348 ppt), analysis conducted in the Lone Star State found significant contamination on several air force bases, including Reese AFB in Lubbock (7,280 ppt), Dyess AFB near Abilene (448,200 ppt), as well as the Lackland (680,000 ppt) and Randolph (182,000 ppt) installations comprising Joint Base San Antonio.
However, unlike their infamous counterpart in North Carolina, none of the affected bases in Texas are listed as Superfund sites. Moreover, while the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) automatically presumes service connection for eight diseases at Camp Lejeune, conditions resulting from PFAS exposure aren’t granted the same status.
The VA’s lack of recognition means that veterans who were exposed to AFFF first have to demonstrate their affliction’s service relation in a contentious and challenging bureaucratic process before being granted any financial assistance. Unfortunately, the VA hasn’t always been forthcoming in such cases and has a long track record of erroneously denying benefits. In Texas, 85% of the Camp Lejeune claims filed by veterans between 2011 and 2019 were outright rejected.
Additionally, legacy AFFF use on military bases can also impact unsuspecting neighboring communities. A study conducted by the CDC in Lubbock County found that residents living near Reese AFB have significantly higher levels of several PFAS compounds in their blood than the national average, with PFAS counts in several local wells exceeding the EPA’s 2016 recommendations.
In August 2022, the adoption of the Honoring Our PACT Act was seen by many as a promising sign of reform. The bill, which enjoyed strong bipartisan support, seeks to provide improved health and retirement benefits and disability compensation for veterans and relatives exposed to hazardous chemicals while serving or stationed on contaminated bases.
For all of the vital progress the PACT Act has achieved, the risks that “forever chemicals” represent remain conspicuously unaddressed. Although 23 new diseases are now recognized as presumptive conditions, PFAS-related illnesses like thyroid and prostate cancer are omitted. Furthermore, even though a PFAS registry was supposed to be established by the VA, the proposal didn’t make it into the bill’s final form.
Moving forward, federal legislators should focus on measures that account for the long-term risks forever chemicals pose, establishing a veterans’ PFAS registry as outlined in the PACT Act’s initial draft and expanding the range of presumptive conditions to include diseases caused by these ubiquitous contaminants. Meanwhile, considering the limited action undertaken thus far to address contamination on affected Texas bases, the Department of Defense should expedite PFAS remediation efforts per the National Defense Authorization Plan.
In March 2023, the EPA proposed maximum contaminant levels for PFAS in drinking water, limiting acceptable PFOA and PFOS concentrations at 4 ppt. However, it should be noted that these levels were proposed based on current detection capabilities and pale in comparison to the EPA’s updated health advisories established last year, which reduced acceptable concentrations to only 0.004 and 0.02 ppt.