Pentagon Health Study Undercounts Toxic Exposure

The government has severely underestimated — potentially by hundreds of thousands — the number of people at military bases across the country exposed to drinking water contaminated with hazardous chemicals known as PFAS, according to a recent report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

The Department of Defense also undercounted the number of bases with contaminated water and downplayed the health hazards of PFAS, according to the report. EWG examined a Defense Department April 2022 PFAS assessment and other Pentagon records and found the study incomplete in several alarming ways.

PFAS are perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as “forever chemicals” because they build up in humans and do not break down in the environment. Small doses of PFAS have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, and other diseases.

PFAS chemicals are widely used to make products resistant to oil, heat, stain, or water. They are found in everything from cosmetics to outdoor gear and non-stick pans. They also coat paper and cardboard wrappers for fast food and bakery goods. They can also be found in stain-resistant furniture and carpets treated with stain- and water-repellent chemicals. In addition, the chemicals have been used in firefighting foams since at least the 1970s.

Among the alarming problems with the report:

  • The Pentagon failed to examine past drinking water exposure. As a result, the estimate of service members exposed to contaminated drinking water doesn’t include those who previously served or lived at those installations.
  • The Pentagon undercounted bases with contaminated water by using an old contamination standard. The military report found 24 installations with a combined population of 175,000 had PFAS-tainted drinking water. However, EWG found at least 116 bases with a population over 640,000 that likely had water above levels currently considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • The Pentagon did not consider all possible health impacts of PFAS and failed to complete a meta-analysis of all possible PFAS harms. For example, it did not include the increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.
  • The Pentagon ignored the impact of PFAS on pregnancy. The report failed to include any of the 239 available studies on how PFAS can affect maternal or fetal health and failed to consider that about 13,000 active-duty service members give birth annually.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, exposure to PFAS may lead to a higher risk for kidney or testicular cancer, increased cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and liver and immune system damage.

Multidistrict litigation underway in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina is seeking to hold manufacturers of these chemicals accountable for damages for contaminating water supplies and for the health effects suffered by individuals who have been exposed to the chemicals.

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