'Forever Chemicals' Here to Stay or Going Away?

For survivalists, being prepared for danger is generally the ultimate goal. From natural disasters to man-made catastrophes, we want to face any challenge and come out on top. But some dangers aren’t as easy to prepare for as others — especially when the threat is invisible and contaminating our water.

In April of 2020, the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, was confirmed at 328 sites in the US. According to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) data submitted to the Pentagon for analysis, there are around 350 more sites with suspected contamination. That means there are nearly 700 Department of Defense (DoD) sites that could be potentially contaminated.

An interactive map presented by the EWG shows both confirmed and suspected sites of PFAS contamination.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that the maximum number of PFAS in ground water is 70 parts per trillion. EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, Scott Faber, told reporters in April that 14 DoD installations saw PFAS levels of 1 million parts per trillion. That number completely blows the EPA recommendation out of the water, raising serious concerns. However, those 14 sites are not the worst there is; in California, Naval Weapons Station China Lake recorded 8 million parts per trillion. In 2017, 1.06 million parts per trillion were reported at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Reducing Contaminants

Filtration systems have been put into place in an effort to protect drinking water, but it doesn’t eliminate exposure to PFAS. You may be wondering where these PFAS are coming from; the answer is aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used by firefighters.

AFFFs are no longer being used in training, which has reduced the frequency of contamination immensely. However, perfluorooctanesulfonic and perfluorooctanoic acids cannot be broken down by the human body. Thus, they will continue to build up over time. Drinking water on or around the contaminated military installations will result in an irreversible buildup of chemicals in your body.

Aside from giving hundreds of billions of dollars to the effort of cleaning up these contaminated areas, Congress has gotten more involved in recent years. The National Defense Authorization Act is the latest stepping stone and requires the Pentagon to find a viable replacement for AFFF by 2024. However, despite the effort by Congress, the biggest objective environmentalists have pushed for has still not been accomplished: the designation of PFAS as toxic under the Safe Drinking Water and the Safe Water and Clean Air acts.

Are the Efforts Paying Off?

The DoD has invested $49 billion in searching for an alternative to AFFF, but no potential candidates for new firefighting foams have proved as effective. The foams in development can extinguish the fires and prevent reignition, but they fall short of the DoD standard. Many of the firefighting foams can extinguish a 28-square-foot fire in around 40-45 seconds; however, the DoD would like this to be accomplished in 30 seconds or less.

Mo Brooks, Republican Representative for the state of Alabama, questioned the DoD’s ability to find an alternative by 2024 during the September 15 House Armed Services Committee’s discussion regarding the DoD’s progress.

Rep. Brooks asked the director of DoD’s Strategic Environment Research and Development Program, Herb Nelson, if he was confident the DoD could find a viable replacement not containing PFAS and have it used in all DoD installations by 2024. Nelson’s answer was anything but reassuring, stating he wouldn’t use the word confident, but instead that he was optimistic.

Brooks had also brought to attention the possibility of the PFAS-free alternatives causing more harm to the environment than the current AFFF. Nelson answered that tests were being conducted along with the development of the new foams, but added the efforts had been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chemical contamination is an unfortunate byproduct of the world we live in. While many substances are easy to clean up, this simply isn’t the case for “forever chemicals” such as PFAS. The way this elusive chemical hides in drinking water and builds up in the body means that people could become sick before they even know there’s a problem. That’s incredibly concerning.

The government continues to work on eliminating PFAS and reducing levels of contamination all across the country. But in the meantime, there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk whether you live in a known high-risk area or not. Start by having your water tested regularly; then, use a carbon-based filtration system to further reduce any contaminants. You should also avoid using products that may contain PFAS compounds, such as non-stick pans, stain resistant clothes, and microwave popcorn bags.

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