When Doris Brock’s husband was diagnosed with stage four bladder and prostate cancer in 2015, his urologist asked him if he’d served in Vietnam. The cancer, the doctor said, was similar to what he’d seen in Vietnam veterans, who’d been exposed to toxins like Agent Orange.
The answer was no—Kendall Brock hadn’t been to Vietnam. But he had served for 35 years as a member of the Air National Guard at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire, retiring as a chief master sergeant. Two years after his diagnosis, he passed away at the age of 67. Doris Brock thought about all the chemicals he’d been exposed to during his career in aircraft maintenance: trichloroethylene, PD-680, different types of solvents.
“PFAS was like at the very back of my mind,” Brock says.
PFAS stands for per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a large group of human-made chemicals that are ubiquitous in manufacturing. These compounds are everywhere: inside our homes, lining the packaging of our food, woven into the clothing we wear. PFAS exposure has been linked to multiple cancers and other health concerns, including decreased fertility and immune dysfunction. Some of the highest concentrations of PFAS chemicals in the country have been found at and around military bases, in large part because of the military’s longtime reliance on the firefighting foam AFFF—PFAS are active ingredients.
Pease Air Force Base had already been designated a superfund site before it shut down in 1991. But in 2013, groundwater sampling also found high levels of PFAS at the former base, which led to the closure of its well. Brock realized that, on top of working with carcinogenic chemicals, her husband had been drinking and showering in contaminated water for years.
The military has started to phase out AFFF, but accumulated chemicals are difficult to remove. The Environmental Working Group has found likely PFAS contamination at at least 704 current and former military bases across the country, a number that generally aligns with the Defense Department’s own assessments. The cost of cleanup could reach billions of dollars. Acknowledging the extent of contamination and beginning remediation efforts have been slow, and advocates like Brock say the military should be doing more to address the problem and care for the families who have been affected by it.
“If you think that you’ve drank the water, and washed in it, and ate food that you cooked in it, for years and years—and you know about this—it’s pretty scary,” Brock says. “It’s scary as hell.”
“We’re talking a thousand times more toxic”
Just this month, the EPA released new acceptable exposure limits for two common PFAS, lowering the limit from the previous 70 parts per trillion to just .002 and .04 parts per trillion—more than a thousand times lower. Of the hundreds of military installations where the Defense Department has identified high levels of PFAS contamination, multiple sites contain more than one million parts per trillion, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group. That’s tens to hundreds of millions of times higher than the EPA’s new standards.
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“We do believe that there are people at bases across the country, and frankly, across the world, that have been exposed to PFAS as a result of their service, or because of family members’ service,” says Erik Olson, who directs the initiatives in health, food, and agriculture at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a widespread and very serious problem.”
Three factors make PFAS particularly problematic, Olson explains. The first is how toxic they are, even at low levels. “Parts per trillion” stands out because of its order of magnitude: Many of the chemicals harmful to our health are measured in parts per million. (In fact, the new exposure limits can be expressed in an entirely new order of magnitude: 4 and 20 parts per quadrillion.) Even exposure to a tiny level of PFAS is unsafe.
“We’re talking a thousand times more toxic than a lot of other things that are regulated in tap water,” Olson says.
PFAS chemicals also move quickly through the environment, spreading through groundwater, as is often the case after an AFFF firefighting foam discharge. They can be released into the air during manufacturing or during incineration to dispose of contaminated materials. Even contaminated water breaking in a wave upon the shore can release PFAS into the air.
And finally, the compounds stick around for a long, long time. PFAS can last in our bodies for years after exposure. In the environment, some PFAS compounds persist for decades; others, centuries. This means that we’re being exposed constantly—almost all humans on Earth have measurable levels of PFAS in their blood.
“They’re called ‘forever chemicals’ for a good reason,” Olson says. “They are very persistent.”
The Defense Department began widely using firefighting foams in the 1970s because of their ability to smother flammable materials and quickly extinguish fires. Almost immediately, the service branches started flagging concerns about the toxicity and biodegradability of the compounds in them. In 1991, the Army Corps of Engineers told officials at Fort Carson, Colorado, to stop using AFFF, noting that it was considered hazardous. Twenty years later, in 2011, the DOD issued a Chemical & Material Emerging Risk Alert for AFFF, noting PFAS’ toxicity and risks to human health and the environment. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the military alerted troops to the potential dangers of PFAS exposure and began to limit its use.
Researchers don’t know the full impact of PFAS on human health. But PFAS exposure has been linked to various cancers, decreased fertility, high cholesterol and blood pressure, immune system disruption, and liver damage. It’s also connected with low birth weights in infants, and it may impact the efficacy of vaccines in children—a particularly concerning health effect during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Defense Department has been moving away from PFAS. In 2019, Congress directed the military to fully phaseout most AFFF use and to develop an alternative PFAS-free firefighting foam—though researchers haven’t yet identified an option that’s as effective and versatile as AFFF. Similarly, the Defense Department is working to replace PFAS in MRE packaging. And just last month, in accordance with this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, DOD issued a moratorium on incinerating AFFF: To dispose of its stockpile, between 2016 and 2020, the military burned more than 20 million pounds of AFFF—often in low-income communities, according to researchers at Bennington College. Studies have shown that rather than destroying PFAS compounds, incineration can release them into the air.
But even as the military works to develop PFAS-free firefighting approaches and procedures for disposing of AFFF that comply with EPA guidance, a larger question looms: What about the hundreds of bases and surrounding communities that have already been contaminated?
“There’s not even a cleanup plan in place”
“When you consider Oscoda, Michigan, there’s trees, there’s water, there’s an Air Force base,” says Anthony Spaniola, a Michigan attorney who has become a leading advocate for cleaning up PFAS contamination. “There pretty much isn’t anything else.”
Spaniola lives in Oscoda, near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base. In 2010, the state of Michigan announced there was PFAS in the groundwater at the former base—the first public acknowledgment of contamination at a military installation.
Nearly 13 years later, Spaniola says, not much has been done. “There’s not even a cleanup plan in place right now,” he says.
Oscoda is just one of many places where citizens—including military families—have pushed the DOD for greater accountability, clearer cleanup plans, and more transparency and communication. The military has claimed that as a federal agency, it isn’t bound by Michigan’s environmental regulations, and this spring missed a congressionally mandated deadline to come to an agreement with the state to clean up Wurtsmith.
The relationship between many of these communities and the military has grown similarly contentious. The city of Dayton, Ohio, sued the Defense Department last year for allowing PFAS to seep into the city’s water supply. In 2019, after New Mexico attempted to compel the Air Force to clean up PFAS contamination, the department sued the state. Two months later, New Mexico countersued.
Frustrated by the slow progress, lawmakers have also insisted on greater accountability. This year’s National Defense Authorization Act included, for the first time, language directing the Defense Department to test for PFAS at current and former military installations, as well as downstream communities, by the end of 2024, and to publicly report its findings. It also required the military to update Congress on the status of assessing the 50 most contaminated sites by the end of February.
“The department is planning for the long-term as we are intent on making sustained progress on all PFAS challenges, not just cleanup, while investing in scientific research to explore every opportunity to accelerate the process,” Richard Kidd, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment and energy resilience, told lawmakers last winter.
But the department missed its February deadline for reporting to Congress on the status of the 50 priority sites. On March 9, officials sent a letter to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees saying the military needed more time. Their new target is late June.
“The progress has been disappointing and slow,” Olson says. “There’s still a very long way to go.”
“We need some help”
The Air Force has spent at least $65 million cleaning up the water at Pease Air Force Base. Last year, the local well that had been contaminated by PFAS from the base reopened, seven years after authorities shut it down.
But for Doris Brock, there are still battles to fight. She wants veterans like her husband who fall ill after being exposed to PFAS and other toxic chemicals to receive medical care and benefits.
“The COST of War Act is a wonderful bill,” Brock says, referring to one of several pieces of legislation attempting to establish a presumptive service connection for veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxins. “The only thing is it falls short of any of the people who have served at domestic bases.”
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In March, U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, a Michigan Democrat whose district includes Oscoda, introduced the Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act, which would require Veterans Affairs to cover certain illnesses in veterans exposed to the chemicals. For advocates like Brock, securing benefits like these would be one step in the right direction.
“We need some help for the men and women who served here locally,” Brock says.
This War Horse investigation was reported by Sonner Kehrt, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines.