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The U.S. Military and Their Forever Chemicals: A Toxic Potion of Pollution and Injustice

By Christine Ow

When we talk about water crises in the United States, the place Flint, Michigan would probably be the first case that comes to mind. Flint became a viral case of America’s aging water infrastructure and environmental injustice seemingly overnight after several videos of lead-laced tap water videos were spread online and damning media reports were published. It quickly emerged that Flint was far from an isolated case and many cities have been exposed to unsafe levels of lead in their tap water. However, America’s problem with unsafe drinking water goes beyond lead pollution from rusty pipes, another facet of it is the pollution of water sources itself. In this article, we will be looking at a specific actor responsible for a very specific type of pollution: the United States (U.S.) Military and their forever chemicals. 

Patient Zero: Newburgh, New York

Newburgh is an old industrial city located in New York state that is primarily populated by communities of color. In 2020, the city’s ongoing water crisis was brought to national attention when VICE wrote an article titled “The New York Water Crisis That Nobody’s Talking About”. The article revealed that the city has effectively been in a state of emergency regarding their drinking water since 2016, after abnormally high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) were found in Lake Washington, the city’s main source of water, and even in the blood of residents. It became abundantly clear at that point that residents of Newburgh have been consuming this polluted water for a long time. 

But the question then comes, how did PFOS get into the Newburgh water supply? A quick investigation found that the source of pollution was a little stream into which the Stewart Air Base was dumping out fire foam. This foam contains PFOS and other chemicals in the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) family. This stream led into Lake Washington, creating the Newburgh Water Crisis as we know it today. However, the case in Newburgh, like in Flint, is not an isolated case study.

Forever Chemicals and Where They Come From

Chemicals in the PFAS family are colloquially known as “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down in the environment. As such, the only way to “get rid” of these chemicals from water bodies is through methods such as activated carbon treatment, ion exchange resins, and filtration through high-pressure membranes. Each of these processes is very expensive and will cost a city millions of dollars to implement. PFAS chemicals are also detrimental to an individual’s health, even a small amount in the human body has been linked to ailments such as cancers, immune dysfunctions, and developmental disorders. It might, therefore, come as a surprise that studies have estimated that around 95% of Americans have been exposed to PFAS, many of the more severe cases naturally being more common among members of the military and their direct family. 

PFAS was first developed in the 1940s but started being used on a much larger scale by the U.S. Military in the 1960s and especially in the Vietnam War. PFAS is a key component of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) which is a highly effective substance against petroleum fires that are used on U.S. military bases both domestically and abroad up to present day. The military was well aware of the environmental risks of PFAS from the very beginning of its use as firefighting foam, however, the indiscriminate use of it was encouraged. As a result, currently, there are over 600 military sites all over the U.S. identified by the Department of Defense as being sites of PFAS contamination, and millions of dollars have been spent in civil lawsuits and cleanups to combat this pollution. 

What Has(n’t) Been Done: Policies

The good news is that the U.S. federal  and state governments have come to realize the urgency of addressing the PFAS problem, and several initiatives and draft policies have been submitted. The bad news is that for the most part, those policies have generally not come to fruition. While there are expressed plans to integrate PFAS into existing chemical regulation legislation such as the Safe Drinking Water Act and Toxic Substances Control Act there has yet to be a concrete timeline set on when that will happen. There have been more successes on an individual state level such as New Jersey setting a maximum contaminant level for PFAS, however, the overall lack of guidance from the federal government has made setting state legislations that much harder. 

What Is Happening: Community Organization

Where policies have failed to address this crisis at hand, community groups and coalitions have been formed to raise awareness about this issue and put further pressure upon the government to implement concrete action. The following are two examples. 

Newburgh Clean Water Project. Looking back at the city that opened this article, in response to the crisis that was declared in 2016, the Newburgh Clean Water Project was formed as a nonpartisan grassroots organization of Newburgh residents. The organization is focused on public education on the water crisis, providing health tests to residents, and galvanizing community members to take action and speak out. 

National PFAS Contamination Coalition. The organization is a nationwide network that connects PFAS community groups to facilitate knowledge sharing and help organize large-scale national campaigns. The eventual goal is to harness the collective power of various small organizations to create sufficient pressure on governments to make decisive policy commitments and enact concrete legislations. 

Why Should We Care About PFAS?

Up to this point, this article has discussed PFAS primarily in terms of its literal impacts on health, the environment, and the American people. That in and of itself should be sufficient reason for us to be concerned about this problem. However, much like in Flint and much like any environmental problem, there is a layer of environmental injustice rooted in racism that simply cannot be ignored. As illustrated in the graph below the number of low-income communities, and communities of color directly affected by this crisis is  significant. Newburgh is a city that is fifty percent Latino, thirty percent African American and one-third of its residents live below the federal poverty line. The water crisis that has resulted from PFAS contamination is another case of environmental injustice. Time and time again we have seen that low-income communities and people of color are the most vulnerable to pollution due to institutional inequities that are a fundamental part of what America is. 

So why should we care? We should care about PFAS because not doing so will make us complicit in the decades of injustice that have happened to these vulnerable communities. We can’t change the past, but we can work towards a better future.


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