PFAS and the Pentagon: reflections on a bipartisan victory

Toxic threats

Firefighting foam commonly contains PFAS.

Our military is taking the fight to toxic forever chemicals. 

In a victory for our troops, public health and the environment last month, the Pentagon issued specifications stating that firefighting foam purchased for military bases must be free of PFAS, a class of more than 9,000 toxic chemicals that have contaminated water across the country.

PFAS have earned the nickname “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down naturally. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure even to small amounts of PFAS has been linked to cancer, delays in childhood development and reduced vaccine response.

Over the past few years, the problem of PFAS contamination has been a constant, steadily increasing presence in the news as Americans come to grips with what a constant, steadily increasing presence we’ve let PFAS become in our lives. 

Because we’ve been seduced into shortsightedness by the easy convenience of PFAS, scientists can now find PFAS in public and private drinking water systems nationwide; in our clothing; on our furniture and carpets; in cosmetics and dental floss among other household products; on farms, in food packaging and in a variety of foods, from fish to chocolate chip cookies; in landfills and Superfund sites; in Arctic seawater and on Mt. Everest.

While our military has been working to switch from PFAS to safer alternatives for the essential task of training to extinguish dangerous fires, the U.S. Department of Defense has identified at least 700 U.S. bases with known or potential PFAS contamination. Since PFAS in firefighting foam is a concern, we’re watching closely for reports of its usage in the aftermath of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment, which would compound the damage done to this community.

The Public Interest Network has a strategy for dealing with problems this pervasive and potentially overwhelming: 
1) Break them down into manageable pieces, and 
2) Elevate both the problem and its solution above partisan politics, so that leaders take prompt action. 

That’s how our flagship organizations, PIRG and Environment America, and our allies helped convince the divided 116th Congress—led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—to direct the Pentagon to phase out PFAS in firefighting foam on military bases back in 2019, setting the stage for the Pentagon’s latest step forward.

As news of ongoing water contamination in neighborhoods near military bases raised the profile of the issue in 2019, Environment America’s federal advocates saw a chance to inspire bipartisan action by organizing a sign-on letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee amplifying voices with cross-party appeal, such as the Air Force Sergeants Association and other veterans groups, alongside cancer prevention and community health organizations around the country. Environment America also helped rally advocates in Washington, D.C. as well as our members and activists nationwide to call for action in Congress.

The Department of Defense “turning off the tap” on PFAS has not only proven it’s possible for powerful institutions to take meaningful action, but also it has reinforced for Americans of all stripes the gravity of the problem—and has thus far helped us bypass the dreaded culture wars, setting the stage for additional, much needed progress.

As the PFAS problem gets more attention, The Public Interest Network and our allies have kept making strides at the state and corporate levels:

  • Last year, our state group Maryland PIRG helped win the adoption of the George “Walter” Taylor Act, banning PFAS statewide in rugs, carpeting and food packaging and transitioning to safer alternatives for firefighting foams in memory of a firefighter who passed away due to cancers connected to PFAS exposure;
  • Our state group in Colorado, CoPIRG, helped win last year’s sweeping state law banning PFAS in fracking fluid as well as cosmetics, furniture and carpets, food packaging and more;
  • CALPIRG and Environment California helped win last year’s statewide ban on PFAS in clothing, makeup and personal care products;
  • Local groups supported by Community Action Works (formerly known as Toxics Action Center) contributed to strong standards protecting drinking water from PFAS contamination in Massachusetts; and
  • As part of a coalition including Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families and Toxic-Free Future, PIRG helped convince the parent company of Burger King, Popeyes and Tim Hortons to ditch PFAS in food packaging by 2025. And just this week, this coalition persuaded REI, the outdoor clothing and gear retailer, to ban PFAS in its clothes and cookware.

Wherever forever chemicals turn up, we’ll be there too, with an incremental, broad-minded approach. Congratulations to our allies in the veteran, health and environmental communities, and thank you to our military leaders for keeping Americans safe.

Topics

Faye Park

Executive Vice President; President, PIRG

As president of PIRG, Faye is a leading voice for consumer protection and public health in the United States. She has been quoted in major news outlets, including CBS News and the Washington Post, about issues ranging from getting toxic chemicals out of children’s products to protecting Americans from predatory lending practices. Faye also serves as the executive vice president for The Public Interest Network, which PIRG founded. Faye began her public interest career as a student volunteer with MASSPIRG Students at Williams College. After graduating in 1992, she began working with the Student PIRGs in California as a campus organizer and organizing director, working on campaigns to help students register to vote and to promote recycling. She lives in Denver with her family.

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