Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles I'll take you out on the dock. For me, you know, it's a life of crabs and fishing and chickens and oysters and PFAS contamination. Go figure. I actually picked up my morning paper one day and saw a headline that said the next Flint may be in northern Michigan, or something like that. And I thought oh boy that's really bad and then they had a picture – it was a picture of my lake. These training facilities would spray this firefighting foam where it'd wash into the ground, wash into a nearby stream and it's actually soaked into the ground and contaminated groundwater and surface water in most bases across the country. The military's use of a firefighting foam with the intention to save lives could have dire consequences for the people who handled it and the people who live nearby. Now, communities are wondering what it means for their health and their homes, snd who's responsible to clean it all up. The investigations are tangled up in politics and national security. The chemicals in the foam itself are the subject of corporate lawsuits, scientific discovery and an ongoing threat to human health. We know the anecdote that the Roman Empire went down because of lead poisoning. But the PFAS, I didn't, I mean myself, I didn't know until about 10 or 12 years ago that this was something that I might have to worry about. The U.S. military has used a firefighting foam called AFFF since the late 60s. It's good at putting out jet fuel fires really fast. But over the past couple decades, scientists have found that one of the chemical compounds that makes AFFF so effective might also be poisoning the people who live and work in and around the bases that use it. The chemicals at the center of it all are called PFAS, short for per- or poly-fluoroalkyl substances. Think of PPAS like the umbrella term for hundreds of these chemical compounds that are based on fluorine-carbon bonds. The most common ones are PFOS and PFOA. What make PFAS so useful in manufacturing is how the chemicals fit together. The fluorine atoms just so happened to fit perfectly around the carbon atoms to create a bond that resists things like heat, oil and water. And so that's actually what's led to a lot of the contamination issues. PFAS don't occur naturally in the environment. The chemical compounds were invented by scientists in the late 30s early 40s. Then came two of the most widely used inventions that were made with PFAS: Teflon and Scotchgard. Those product lines have revolutionized home cooking and cleaning along with the chemical industry itself. Today PFAS are used in a ton of products, from raincoats to waterproof shoes, non-stick pots and pans, microwave popcorn bags and even cosmetics. But over the last few decades, companies have had to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements over PFAS contamination stemming from manufacturing. 3M, DuPont and Chemguard settled these multimillion dollar cases without admitting any wrongdoing. The producers have said all there's absolutely no risk and they're not dangerous, they're so stable. But that's exactly the problem. That's Phillipe Grandjean, one of the world's leading PFAS researchers. Documents that have been made available in legal cases involving 3M and DuPont show the companies had been studying the health effects of PFAS for decades. One document is a 1999 resignation letter from a 3M environmental specialist saying his resignation was prompted by his "profound disappointment" in the company's handling of risks associated with PFOS. In another instance, Bucky Bailey, the son of a former DuPont factory worker who worked in the Teflon division, was born with one nostril and a deformed eye. He's been outspoken about PFAS contamination, though the C8 Science Panel could not conclude his deformities were linked to PFAS. Chemours, which was spun off from DuPont in 2015, told CNBC it does not currently use PFOA or PFOS in any of its manufacturing processes. And 3M announced the phase out of the two PFAS compounds in 2000. To make sense of how the military fits into all of this, I called Dr. Stephen TerMaath, an Air Force official working on the cleanup of PFAS contamination at the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan. Active duty soldiers left the base in the 90s, but contamination from past firefighting activity is still there. Today Wurtsmith is home to housing complexes, local businesses and a giant filter that's working to remove PFAS from the water. Meanwhile, active military bases across the country are still using AFFF that contains PFAS, even though the military recognizes its dangers. That's because technically, they're required to. Other countries like Australia have started to roll out fluorine-free alternatives. The U.S. Navy said it's working on developing a new PFAS-free formula and minimizing the additional release of the foam into the environment. Service members who have already been exposed to AFFF are trying to put the pieces together. I talked with James Bussey, an Air Force veteran who was stationed at Wurtsmith from 1989 to 1992. The Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University have been mapping out all of the known PFAS contamination sites across the U.S. As of July 2019, there were more than 700 locations across 49 states. 175 of those were military bases. The contamination at the hundreds of other locations were found at public water systems, airports, industrial plants and firefighter training sites. And there have been reports of PFAS contamination on military bases in other countries too. But for this video we're just going to focus on how it's affecting people in the U.S. Exposure to the chemical compound has been linked to some pretty serious health problems like miscarriages, thyroid disease even cancer. These compounds, once they get into the body, they stay there. And they stay there for a very very long time, perhaps even decades for some of them. And that is precisely what makes me worry that they can cause adverse effects in the long run, not just a matter of short-term poisoning. James had his blood tested for six types of PFAS in 2018. Despite not working with AFFF for more than two decades, his test results showed one type of PFAS commonly used in firefighting foam at levels more than three times the national average. The VA has not been able to definitively link this to any of his health conditions. The communities who live around military bases are feeling the impact of PFAS contamination too. Water is huge. If you looked at an aerial map you will see it's Lake Huron, it's Van Etten Lake, it's the Au Sauble River. So for recreational purposes, for sustainability purposes, people live off the fish and the wildlife there. So it's, I mean, if you take away the water in Oscoda, you take away Oscoda. Since PFAS don't naturally break down in the environment, the chemicals are still being found in the water from AFFF use in the 70s, 80s and early 90s. Tony's lake house across from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base falls within the lines of what's been designated a zone of concern. It wasn't until 2016 that some Oscoda residents were first told not to drink the groundwater. That's when it first really was big time on my radar screen. Residents whose well water was contaminated were given bottled water and reverse osmosis filtration systems to use under their kitchen sink. We have been told that we can't eat the fish from the river. We've been told that we can't eat venison from deer harvested within a five mile radius essentially of the base. We've been told if you live in this zone of concern that you shouldn't drink your drinking water. We have swept these things under the rug for far too long, for decades, for convenience, for short term profit. We're paying the piper now. For the people who swam in the lake and drank the water the fallout is still unknown. People don't like to advertise their health problems. No one does. What I've seen in Oscoda is a lot of folks who are living in a kind of silent desperation. As a citizen activist nearby I wanted to find out if there was any documented PFAS exposure to the people in this community, including me because I'm only four or five miles away from the potential plume. It's possible. Exactly how far PFAS can travel in the environment has been debated. Scientists say it's anywhere from a few miles to all the way across the world. Just hop on the boat and you know you go right around here and ride about 10 minutes you're in the bay and another 10 minutes, you get to a point on a slightly cloudy day you can't see land. I mean it's huge. You know there's just so much water here. It's very much a part of things. The Patuxent River Naval Air Base near Pat wasn't listed in the Department of Defense's official report of those 401 bases suspected of releasing PFAS. However Navy documents show levels of PFAS in the groundwater at roughly 16 times higher than the EPA's lifetime health advisory. The Patuxent River Naval Air Base said it wasn't listed in the main DOD report because its final test results weren't made public in time for its publication. The Navy said it didn't notify its residents on base because it says it doesn't affect drinking water and it's not nearby residential housing. It has yet to schedule follow up testing to see if that contaminated groundwater at Site 34 has spread. There is no current plan to clean up the contamination. We've got people living adjacent to where these buried containers with PFAS were. We're not testing their water. Why not? So I wrote a letter. And the response was, you know, we trust the federal government. We trust the Navy to do what's right. And it's signed by a public health official in the state of Maryland. And that's not good enough for me. When we asked why the people who live off-base weren't notified or didn't have their water tested, a spokesperson said it's because there is a very low risk of exposure. At other bases across the country, service members are wondering what impact AFFF might have had on them. Reporting by The Military Times has found some women were told not to get pregnant on base. On another base, 16 cases of cancer in one family. Now they're all questioning whether PFAS in the water was to blame. It's the multibillion dollar question: who is ultimately responsible for PFAS contamination and how much would it cost to clean up? Many place some of the blame on the EPA for its bureaucracy and out-of-date chemical regulatory system. There's currently at least, as of last count, the EPA noted over 600 PFAS chemicals were in active use in the last decade. And so doing a single chemical by chemical regulatory approach would take many lifetimes on that many chemicals. Even the military said the EPA's lack of regulation is making it hard to start planning its cleanup program. And while the Pentagon is investing hundreds of millions in investigations and temporary fixes, it's just a Band-Aid for a bigger problem. Coming up with a plan to actually get rid of PFAS in the environment? That's where things get tricky. As of June 2019, the military has no actual plans to clean up the contamination. And at this pace to even start that process could take years. Not to mention billions of dollars. For the communities involved, it's all moving way too slow. Our regulators need to get their heads out of the sand and listen to what these people have to say. But to understand the layers of political and legal drama unfolding today, it's important to understand what the U.S. has deemed illegal when it comes to PFAS. In short, not much. Some states are starting to develop their own guidelines. But there is no single legally enforceable drinking water standard for PFAS across the country. The EPA has issued something called a lifetime health advisory for PFAS at 70 parts per trillion. That's such a minuscule amount of PFAS, most people have no frame of reference for how much that actually is. Think of it this way, 70 parts per trillion has been likened to a few drops of PFAS in an Olympic-size swimming pool. Essentially, that's how much the EPA says a human can safely drink throughout their lifetime. But it's just a suggestion, not a regulation and not legally enforceable. The water near some military bases has reached levels much higher than the EPA's health advisory. In Louisiana, PFAS levels have reached more than 10 million parts per trillion. The military isn't denying its role spreading AFFF. When we reached out to the Pentagon for comment a spokesperson said the department takes its cleanup responsibilities seriously. The EPA said it would propose a regulatory determination for PFOA and PFOS by the end of the year and that it's in the process of listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under CERCLA. But as it stands now, different states have different rules. And depending on those rules, the military may have to spend a lot more money to clean things up. In Oscoda alone, the Air Force has already spent millions on PFAS. We've invested $88.9 million at Wurtsmith. And the PFOS/PFOA to date is $14.9 million. And we anticipate the cleanup activities at Wurtsmith costing another $190 million. That's just one single base out of the more than 400 and counting. There's another layer of complexity when it comes to U.S. military bases.