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Military’s use of disputed firefighting foam scrutinized at US House hearing

EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. - Biodegradable foam spilled out into to the parking area in front of the Air Force F-35 Joint Strike Fighter hangar Dec. 1, 2010 after testing the new building's fire suppression system. (U.S. Air Force photo/Sachel Seabrook)

Jim Holmes knew serving in the U.S. military could cost him his life. He never imagined that living for many years on a military base might cost his daughter her life.

Holmes, a retired helicopter pilot, told a House subcommittee Tuesday that he believes drinking water contaminated by a firefighting foam 3M developed for the military contributed to the rare brain cancer that killed his child.

Minnesota-based 3M denies that the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS used in firefighting foam have hurt anyone at their current levels in the environment. Holmes spoke at a hearing on how PFAS may have put service members at risk.

The PFAS in firefighting foam polluted the drinking water at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., to levels 57,000 times greater than the health advisory limit set by Environmental Pollution Agency, Holmes said.

“I lost my only child to being poisoned by the same military that I served and faithfully fought for,” Holmes told the House Appropriations Committee Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee.

The Air Force recorded PFAS readings of 3.4 million parts per trillion on the Patrick base. The EPA says anything over 70 parts per trillion is potentially dangerous. Yet no one from the military warned service members or their families about the risks of these “forever chemicals” that do not break down in nature and accumulate in humans.

The EPA said they are linked to cancer, immune disorders, reproductive problems and an array of other health issues. PFAS have been identified in drinking-water systems at 328 military bases across the country, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmental advocacy organization.

3M in 2019 said it stopped making and selling its firefighting foam “more than a decade ago.” Maureen Sullivan, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for environment, outlined ways in which the government now limits PFAS-infused firefighting foam which it uses to put out high-temperature fuel fires. The foam, still made by manufacturers other than 3M, is no longer used in training or nonemergency situations. But it remains in use in emergencies, said Sullivan, because the military has not found a non-PFAS replacement that meets its standards for quickly extinguishing “petroleum-based fires.”

EWG’s senior vice president, Scott Faber, countered that several non-PFAS foams exist.

Sullivan also made a distinction in how the military chooses to help clean up contaminated water systems adjacent to bases. The Defense Department estimates cleanup costs at $3 billion, Sullivan said, but expects the figure to grow. The government funds water-treatment systems “where we are the known source” of PFAS contamination, Sullivan said.

As she spoke, the mayor and city manager of Satellite Beach, Fla., a city of 10,000 residents adjacent to Patrick Air Force Base, sat in the audience. Their city, where Holmes now lives, suffers from breast cancer and brain cancer rates higher than the general population, but has received no help from the military.

The military’s failure to communicate the risks of PFAS and to control its use on bases clearly irked subcommittee members from both parties.

“You can’t ask a guy to go to war and come back and tell him his family has been poisoned,” said Republican Rep. John Carter of Texas.

Fellow Republican John Rutherford of Florida, whose district includes Jacksonville Naval Air Station, said the country needs to “accelerate the banning of this product.”

The most recent National Defense Authorization Act banned the use of PFAS firefighting foam in training and included an outright ban by 2024.

But that cannot reach back to help people like Holmes, subcommittee members stressed.


© 2020 the Star Tribune