Just up the coast from where I live, the U.S. Navy is providing bottled water to residents and Naval trainees after two local groundwater wells tested positive for alarming levels of the cancer-causing chemicals PFOA and PFAS. These contaminants, widely used to make carpets, fabrics, food packaging and more, are pervasive; they can’t be easily broken down and effectively poison water sources. But the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Defense have been postponing action and downplaying that danger — putting the lives of service members, families, and communities at-risk.
While several states are rushing to clean up contaminated sites and act on safety regulations, EPA administrators have failed to take this issue seriously. Hosting hearing sessions, making empty promises to address the health crisis, and barring media from covering the issue are all detrimental to public safety. Despite new EPA guidelines set out in 2016, the Pentagon did not disclose the full scope of the contamination on military installations until March of this year. While the DoD has acted on some of the contamination, reports show that there is much more work to be done in reporting and regulatory compliance.
As a veteran and longtime resident of North Carolina, I can say honestly that this problem warrants far more attention than it has been given. At Camp Lejeune, the largest Marine Corps base on the East Coast, three-quarters of a million people were poisoned with toxic drinking water for over 30 years — leading to more than 15 kinds of illnesses including a variety of cancers. Today, the U.S. Army says there are 146 military sites contaminated with PFAS and PFOA. Environmental Working Group released a study showing that up to 16 million Americans use drinking water with such contamination.
Unfortunately, as a nation we have historically ignored this type of issue, failing communities like Flint, Michigan, which are still suffering from the effects of contaminated drinking water. In North Carolina, we’re falling behind in dealing with air and water pollution from GenX, an unregulated chemical released into the Cape Fear River for years — a river that provides drinking water for residents from Fayetteville to Wilmington.
States don’t have the capacity or resources to act on this growing threat alone. The “hotspots” for PFAS and PFOA contamination are popping up in different locations every week — Colorado recently found new contamination in Boulder, potentially 4,800 public drinking water systems are threatened in Ohio, and Michigan has more than 30 known contaminated sites.
The Department of Defense can safeguard public health, and has the obligation to protect and provide for service members and their families. The first step is notifying any who have been stationed at military bases where PFAS-containing foams were used. Stopping any and all distribution and use of AFFF foam, providing accessible and sensitive testing for affected communities, and beginning remediation immediately must occur to protect families all over the country from further harm.
Our public health leaders have not protected military families and neighboring communities from PFAS contamination, but there is still time to do the right thing. It is time for the Department of Defense to fix the damage it has caused and protect America’s families.