The military is ending the use of PFAS. Why that’s a win for kids’ health.

Using safer alternatives in firefighting foam will mean eliminating a significant pathway for toxic contamination of drinking water sources.

Kids' health

clean tap water
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Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

Few things are more important for our health than having safe, clean water to drink.

Kids especially, with their growing bodies, need access to water that’s free of any potentially toxic contamination. Yet far too many of our drinking water sources are tainted with health-harming chemicals called “PFAS.”

But recent action from the Department of Defense is helping to change that. Here’s why a new plan to eliminate toxic PFAS chemicals from firefighting foam on military bases is good news for kids’ health.

The basics of PFAS

  • PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They’re used in the manufacture of a wide variety of products to make them greaseproof and water-resistant.
  • PFAS are also present in many kinds of firefighting foam — which, it turns out, is one of the primary ways that PFAS get into our drinking water. Once toxic foam is sprayed on the ground (often during training exercises on military bases), it can easily wind up in nearby rivers, streams or groundwater. Accordingly, studies have found much higher rates of PFAS contamination in water around military bases in the U.S.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has found these chemicals in the bodies of nearly every American it has tested. And PFAS tend to stick around forever, both in our environment and our bodies. You may have heard their common nickname: “forever chemicals.”
  • As more research has been done to assess the effects of these chemicals on the human body, studies have linked PFAS exposure to a number of serious health issues, from birth defects to developmental problems to increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.

How these ‘forever chemicals’ are especially threatening to kids

  • Nikki Aldrich of Hoosick Falls, New York, has firsthand experience with the tragic health consequences brought on by PFAS-contaminated water. Her two children suffer from illnesses related to PFAS exposure — the result of years of unknowingly drinking water with high levels of PFAS, including while Aldrich was pregnant.
  • Aldrich’s experience is far from unique. PFAS can alter thyroid hormone levels in mothers and their babies, which affects brain development, growth and metabolism, and immunity. Women exposed to PFAS during pregnancy are more likely to suffer from gestational diabetes and high blood pressure. Their children have a greater chance of low birth weight, and later, childhood obesity and infections.
PIRG staff are working to reduce toxic PFAS from many sources — from firefighting foam to consumer products like clothing and food wrappers.

We can stop PFAS contamination at the source

  • In late 2019, PIRG and our allies convinced Congress to order the phase-out of PFAS-laden firefighting foam from use by the military. With plenty of PFAS-free alternatives available that still get the job done, there’s no reason we should continue using these toxic chemicals on military bases and contaminating water sources for surrounding communities.
  • Now, the Pentagon is finally carrying out this crucial task after issuing new military specifications (“mil-spec”), which state that firefighting foam purchased for military bases must be free of PFAS. This is a great step toward protecting kids everywhere from the threat of PFAS-contaminated water.
  • Once the military fully transitions to PFAS-free alternatives, it could lead to states and other entities making the switch as well. A number of states already have bans that were set to go into effect once the Pentagon updated its standards — so the changes are even more widespread.

There’s still a lot more to do, from getting PFAS out of common consumer products, to enacting stronger safeguards against industrial dumping of PFAS into waterways, to funding the cleanup of PFAS pollution already out there. And while the military is marching in the right direction on firefighting foam, we are now calling on civilian airports and fire departments to switch to PFAS-free foam as well.

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Matt Casale

Former Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG

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