House Appropriations Committee holds hearing on impact of PFAS exposure on service members

March 16, 2020

The House Appropriations Committee subpanel on military construction, veterans’ affairs, and related agencies held a hearing on March 11 on the impact of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) on servicemembers.

Jim Holmes, a 25-year U.S. Army and Air Force veteran whose daughter died in March 2019 after a 15-month battle with a rare brain cancer, testified before the committee. Holmes believes his daughter’s death is related to drinking water contaminated by firefighting foam used for decades at the Patrick Air Force Base, located between Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach, in Florida. His family lived on or near the base for 16 years.

Holmes argued before House lawmakers for a stronger response from the Pentagon for its decades-long use of the firefighting foam known as AFFF, which contains PFAS.

According to Holmes, he was never notified that the water at Patrick Air Force Base was contaminated with PFAS despite the Air Force’s own water sampling showing groundwater had considerably more PFAS in the drinking water than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency deems safe.

In 2016, the Pentagon banned the use of the firefighting foam except to fight real fires and will phase out the foam entirely by 2024. The Pentagon also created a task force to study the issue and identified 400 current or former military sites where contamination does, or is believed to, exist.

The Pentagon is working with municipalities to treat local water supplies at some sites where high levels of PFAS have been found. However, Patrick Air Force Base has not been among the sites to receive support from the Pentagon, said Maureen Sullivan, Pentagon deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment.

Sullivan said the cost to contain and clean up PFAS at these sites will be at least $3 billion.

“I expect that cost will grow as we further investigate and design remedies to address groundwater,” she said.

Representative Deborah Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) said countries of NATO have begun using PFAS-free firefighting foam and asked Sullivan why hasn’t the United States.

The Pentagon is monitoring NATO’s use, but Sullivan said it is at least three times less effective, in terms of seconds, of putting out the fire.

Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, asked Congress to address other products commonly used by the military that contain PFAS, which include food packaging, sunscreen, and textiles. He said doing so could help lower the levels of PFAS in the bloodstreams of service members and their families.

“Many of the highest PFAS detections in the nation have so far been found at DoD [Department of Defense] installations,” Faber said. “… Communities near military installations are also disproportionately affected by PFAS pollution.”

Holmes said he was aware of at least 16 cases of rare brain cancer and breast cancers among the 12,000 residents of Satellite Beach, Florida, which is south of Patrick Air Force Base where he has lived since 2013. He attributes the military and its use of PFAS for these cases.

Stars and Stripes reported that the Florida Department of Health studied some of those cases in 2019 but was unable to confirm the potential of a “cancer cluster” around Patrick Air Force Based linked to PFAS.

Representative John Rutherford (R-Florida) said the issue should be studied further.