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During the frantic arms race of the Cold War, the US military’s frequent mishandling, improper storage, and inadequate disposal of toxic substances have irreparably impacted the lives of unsuspecting service members. Though essentially an unintentional consequence of the lacking knowledge regarding long-term risks at the time, countless troops who served on contaminated US bases were exposed to chemical hazards linked to debilitating and life-threatening diseases.
North Carolina’s infamous Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base stands as a testament to the harrowing extent unaddressed contamination can reach. For 34 years (1953 – 1987), upwards of 1 million individuals who served and lived on the base were unknowingly exposed to toxic hazards leaching into drinking water from decaying solvents, degreasers, oil, and industrial chemicals.
Over 70 chemical hazards were identified on Camp Lejeune’s grounds in the early 1980s, including carcinogens like trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, vinyl chloride, and benzene. Although the base was deemed a Superfund site in 1989, subsequent cleanup projects and periodic site reviews enabled its continued operation to this day.
Despite ongoing remediation efforts, significant volumes of a previously unaccounted-for class of persistent toxins were uncovered at Camp Lejeune in the mid-to-late 2010s.
Also known as ‘forever chemicals,’ per/polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are molecularly strong synthetic compounds whose physical properties earned their widespread use in many commercial and industrial products and applications. The subvariants PFOA and PFOS were the main ingredients in aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a firefighting solution designed to quell difficult fuel blazes, which became a staple on US military bases since the early 1970s.
What wasn’t immediately apparent, in no small part due to AFFF manufacturers’ disingenuous conduct, was that PFAS weren’t inert and safe ingredients. PFAS’ environmental persistence, high mobility, and capacity to accumulate in the body distinguish them as enduring health risks, with the ATSDR linking chronic ‘forever chemical’ exposure to several cancers, liver and kidney impairment, higher cholesterol, decreased birth weight, and reproductive toxicity.
By 2016, the EPA’s non-regulatory health advisories for PFOA and PFOS deemed concentrations above 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as unsafe. The highest combined detection at Camp Lejeune topped at 179,348 ppt.
The legacy use of AFFF across Virginian military bases also led to instances of ‘forever chemical’ contamination, albeit to differing degrees. While the former Vint Hill Farms Station registered 1,750 ppt of PFOA and PFOS in on-base groundwater, the levels uncovered at Fort Eustis and Langley Air Force Base (forming Joint Base Langley-Eustis since 2010) were significantly higher at 77,600 ppt and 2,225,000 ppt, respectively.
Although Camp Lejeune’s contamination prompted bespoke legislation in 2012 to help former base residents suffering toxic exposure’s outcomes, the Department of Veteran Affairs’ (VA) underprepared staff and complicated bureaucracy led to a massive rejection of disability claims. Though more than 87,000 veterans from the Old Dominion State served at Camp Lejeune, 81% of the claims filed between 2011 and 2019 were denied.
In contrast to Camp Lejeune exposures, for which the VA recognized 8 diseases as presumptive conditions in 2017, illnesses stemming from PFAS exposure aren’t granted the same recognition. Even if the VA acknowledges forever chemicals’ potential health risks, exposure isn’t regarded as a presumptive factor that would automatically qualify former service members for disability compensation, requiring veterans to undergo the lengthy process of demonstrating their condition is categorically service-connected.
The adoption of the bipartisan PACT Act in August 2022 was welcomed as the most significant development for veterans who were exposed to chemical hazards in the military. Though largely well-received, the bill’s provisions have been scrutinized for their inconsistencies.
While the “Camp Lejeune Justice Act” incorporated into the bill once again allows former base residents to file toxic water lawsuits, they can only do so if their newly submitted claims are denied or aren’t addressed within 180 days (6 months). Out of 93,000 claims filed so far, the Navy hasn’t settled a single case yet, although it has recently announced an elective option for quicker out-of-court settlements that can range between $100,000 and $450,000.
Meanwhile, the PACT Act doesn’t expressly address the long-lasting health risks that forever chemicals represent. While the bill recognizes over 20 new diseases as presumptive conditions, illnesses like thyroid and prostate cancer, which can arise from PFAS exposure, aren’t recognized as such. Further still, a stand-alone proposal that was coopted into the bill’s initial draft and would’ve established a PFAS registry overseen by the VA wasn’t part of the final version that got signed into law.
To fully achieve the PACT Act’s goals, federal legislators should seek to amend the bill, removing the convoluted bureaucratic obstacles encumbering veterans’ access to vital compensation and extending disability coverage for diseases caused by emerging contaminants like PFAS. Alternatively, policymakers could also consider proposals like the VETS PFAS Act, which was first submitted back in 2018.
As the Department of Defense transitions from AFFF by 2024, with new standards for safer foams adopted earlier this year, the EPA is ramping up its efforts to regulate PFAS as hazardous substances. In March 2023, the EPA proposed regulatory limits for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water at just 4 ppt, the lowest concentration that can be confidently quantified with current technological capabilities.
Jonathan Sharp serves as Chief Financial Officer of the Birmingham, Alabama-based Environmental Litigation Group, a law firm that specializes in toxic exposure cases and helps individuals injured by hazardous substances on contaminated military locations.