The U.S. Military Leaves a Toxic Trail at Home and Overseas

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The United States has a far-flung network of overseas military bases, operating in secret and far outside the reach of American environmental regulation. Research now shows the U.S. military has left a quagmire of chemical contamination at home and around the globe that will cost billions of dollars to correct.

When Army Staff Sgt. Samuel Fortune returned from Iraq, his body battered by war; he assumed he’d be safe. Then the people around him began to get sick. His neighbors, all living near five military bases, complained of tumors, thyroid problems, and debilitating fatigue. Soon, the Colorado health department announced an unusually high number of kidney cancers in the region.

Then Mr. Fortune’s wife fell ill. The military, it turned out, had been leaching toxic chemicals into the water for decades. Mr. Fortune felt “stabbed in the back,” he said:

“We give our lives and our bodies for our country, and our government does not live up to their end of the deal.”

Slip into At Least 55 Drinking Water Systems

That was 2016. Since then, the Defense Department has admitted that it allowed a firefighting foam to slip into at least 55 drinking water systems at military bases worldwide, sometimes for generations. This exposed tens of thousands of Americans, possibly many more, to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of human-made chemicals known as PFAS that have been linked to cancers, immune suppression, and other serious health problems.

Over the last 80 years, much of the land surrounding Venetucci Farm was sold to the U.S. Army to establish the base now known as Fort Carson, and today it is hemmed in by highways. Still, with its 200 acres of fields, farmhouse, and big red barn, it is a beloved institution in Colorado Springs. As the only community urban farm left in the sprawling city is a valuable resource, educating thousands of children about agriculture, sustainability, and healthy eating and known above all for its annual pumpkin giveaways.

PFCs and Related Human-Made Chemicals

The autumn pumpkin event has taken place for decades, and a local brewer still makes Venetucci Pumpkin Ale, but now the pumpkins are bought elsewhere. The product is no longer available for public consumption because farming activities have stopped. In 2016, irrigation water was found to be contaminated with elevated levels of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).

The foundation that runs the farm has joined forces with a local water district to sue the U.S. Air Force, alleging that toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam at a nearby base have tainted the water, perhaps for decades, prompting health worries and causing economic losses.

Similar concerns have been raised about dozens of other bases across the country. But the problem is not limited to areas close to military installations. PFCs and related human-made chemicals, more generally known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been virtually unregulated since at least the 1950s. Besides industrial sites, airports, and bases, PFAS has long been used in household products thanks to its grease- and stain-resistant properties. They are everywhere: from fast-food packaging to carpets and furniture, water-repellent clothing, and non-stick cookware such as Teflon.

Drinking Water Systems Nationwide

The extraordinary resilience that led to them being dubbed “forever chemicals” no longer seems such a boon. As more becomes known about their widespread presence in the environment and the potential health risks, activists urge state and federal regulators to increase oversight and even ban PFAS outright.

A 2007 study estimated that PFAS is in the blood of 98% of Americans. Last year, an analysis by the not-for-profit Environmental Working Group found that more than 1,500 drinking water systems nationwide could be contaminated PFAS, affecting as many as 110 million people.

Studies suggest that certain PFAS may affect the growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant; interfere with the body’s natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; affect the immune system, and increase the risk of kidney and testicular cancer and thyroid problems.

Toxic Chemical into Our Drinking Water

Mark Favors is convinced that PFAS can cause cancer. The 50-year-old now lives in New York but was born and raised in the Colorado Springs area and went to an army nursing school. He said that16 of his family members who have lived in contaminated areas for at least a decade were diagnosed with cancer, seven of them military veterans, and not all blood relatives. Ten died, several from kidney cancer. A 15-year-old cousin required a kidney transplant in 2015 after a sudden failure that doctors determined was not caused by a genetic defect. He said:

“We had four generations that drank contaminated water. We’ve been there since the 70s. My mother grew up on a farm a mile away from Peterson [air force base] and drank well water […] we didn’t think they’d be dumping an odorless, colorless, toxic chemical into our drinking water that would remain in our bodies for five or 10 years at a minimum.”

The Pentagon also creates such special classes of lethal byproducts as high-level radioactive wastes from atomic weapons plants, high explosive powder, outdated chemical weapons, rocket fuels, and ordnance practice ranges full of unexploded bullets, bombs, and artillery shells.

The Most Polluted Places in America

Besides, the 2 million men and women in uniform and 1 million civilian Pentagon employees stationed in the U.S. and around the globe daily produce tons of ordinary garbage, medical wastes, photographic chemicals, and as much sewage as a large city.

By the Pentagon’s admission, much of this waste has been treated cavalierly both in the United States and abroad. A seven-year survey of 1,579 domestic bases found 14,401 sites of known and suspected contamination, including 87 that qualify for inclusion on the Superfund list of the most polluted places in America. According to Defense Department estimates, cleaning up the messes at U.S. bases will cost at least $20 billion and perhaps as much as $200 billion.

The Pentagon has not even begun to assess the scope of the problem at foreign facilities, fearing the staggering cost of cleanup and the wrath of allies. While there is no systematic effort underway to determine how badly polluted America’s overseas bases are, the Army–without even looking formally–has identified 300 contaminated sites in West Germany alone. Of the total, 30 are on bases slated for closure, and 25 are currently deemed serious enough to require expensive long-term remedies.