PFAS Exposure

Throughout their service to our country, many of our military members and their families have been exposed to toxic chemicals both during their work and during their time on military bases. One class of toxic chemicals that service members may be exposed to is known as PFAS. These substances have been linked to cancer, disorders of the reproductive system and immune system, and a host of other diseases.

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances — or, as they are commonly called, PFAS — are linked to a number of health conditions. If active-duty service members and veterans are exposed to PFAS, they may be eligible for compensation and treatment.

PFAS are referred to as “forever chemicals” because they never break down. Once they build up in your bloodstream, they stay there.

PFAS are manmade synthetic chemicals used because they are resistant to heat. The military used PFAS mostly in firefighting foam to put out fires. This was problematic because PFAS could seep into the groundwater and contaminate the drinking water. The VA says exposure to PFAS can cause vets to develop an array of issues in their reproductive and immune systems and increase the risk of cancer and other diseases.

PFAS are manmade synthetic chemicals used because they are resistant to heat. The military used PFAS mostly in firefighting foam to put out fires. This was problematic because PFAS could seep into the groundwater and contaminate the drinking water. The VA says exposure to PFAS can cause vets to develop an array of issues in their reproductive and immune systems and increase the risk of cancer and other diseases.

What are PFAS?

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of hundreds of manufactured chemicals that are known for their heat resistance and are particularly effective at fighting fuel-based fires. They are used in products such as coatings, adhesives, and firefighting foam. 

Firefighting foam containing PFAS can still be found at military sites and airports to this day, although highly regulated, while alternatives are developed and implemented.

How Were Veterans Exposed to PFAS?

The Department of Defense (DOD) began using firefighting foam that contained PFAS in the 1970s, following a catastrophic fire on an aircraft carrier stationed in Vietnam that resulted in the deaths of over one hundred sailors. 

Studies have shown that active-duty service members and their families could be exposed to toxic chemicals through the firefighting foam and contaminated drinking water at bases where the foam was used.

There is no natural way to remove PFAS from groundwater or human bodies. It is believed that most Americans have been exposed to PFAS, which can make it difficult to prove that veterans were exposed at a military location.

Where Were Veterans Exposed to PFAS?

The DOD has identified almost 700 military bases that will need remedial action for PFAS groundwater contamination released with firefighting foam. This number does not include sites that had PFAS levels below federal regulatory levels but above the state-mandated levels. The DOD provided bottled water and installed water treatment facilities at these locations, costing an estimated $3 billion from 2020-2021 alone. The contamination at military bases affects not only service members but also their families and anyone living on or near the bases. 

Veterans may also have been exposed to PFAS through training exercises and fighting jet fuel fires. Research is ongoing, but hundreds of thousands of service members may have been exposed to PFAS. 

Litigation has been filed against firefighting foam manufacturers, many by the municipalities where the military installations are located. The cases have been consolidated in the United States District Court of South Carolina.

Which Military Bases are Confirmed to be Contaminated with PFAS?

Of the almost 700 military sites with known PFAS contamination, the DOD has identified sites where remedial action has been taken to treat contaminated groundwater. Keep in mind this is a non-inclusive list of the locations identified:

  • Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington State
  • Former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Pennsylvania
  • Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico
  • Horsham Air Guard Station in Pennsylvania
  • Fort Leavenworth in Kansas
  • Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey
  • Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California
  • Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio

The work of identifying and remediating groundwater contamination at military sites is ongoing. If you think you may have been exposed to PFAS at a certain location, online searches would be a good place to start looking for additional information.

Health Conditions Associated with PFAS

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the health risks increase with the duration and amount of exposure to PFAS. These forever chemicals will build up in the body with prolonged exposure. Exposure to PFAS is linked to many health risks, including:

  • Reproductive system impacts
  • Immune system impacts
  • Certain cancers, including testicular and kidney cancers
  • Increased risk of asthma, thyroid disease, and liver damage

Many of the potential health risks involve expectant mothers and their babies. Fetuses can be exposed to PFAS before birth through their mothers and then in breast milk and formula. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), risks to mothers and their children include possible fertility challenges, high blood pressure rates during pregnancy, low birth rates, shifts in hormones that may lead to changes in puberty, and differences in behavior.

The EPA also acknowledges that there are thousands of types of PFAS with different toxicity levels. PFAS have been used for a variety of purposes over the years, which makes it difficult to trace who may have been exposed and when.

Unlike exposure to toxins such as asbestos that can be directly associated with mesothelioma, it may be difficult to link exposure to PFAS to a certain condition.

Do VA Health Benefits Cover PFAS-Related Health Conditions?

The VA recently started screening veterans for possible toxic exposure through the PACT Act. In addition to determining exposure to toxic substances such as Agent Orange, the PACT Act is expected to begin a registry of service members who were believed to be exposed to PFAS.

The VA determines disability claims from PFAS exposure on a case-by-case basis. Claims can be filed online.

There is also legislation currently pending to compensate military families for health care costs associated with conditions resulting from exposure to PFAS.

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What is the Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act (VET PFAS Act)?

Congress has introduced the Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act (or VET PFAS Act), which would ensure service members and their families are compensated for treatment for PFAS-related health conditions. The service member or their family member would have to prove that the health care is required due to PFAS exposure at a military installation and not another source.

Millions of Americans are estimated to have PFAS in their drinking water and exposure from other sources, so proving that exposure occurred at a military site or during military service may prove challenging.

The bill would provide compensation only after all other claim remedies are pursued, presumably referring to the more than 2,000 lawsuits currently pending in the District of South Carolina.

In that litigation, individuals and municipalities have brought lawsuits against the manufacturers of firefighting foam, including companies such as 3M. The first bellwether trial is scheduled to begin in 2023, which will impact future verdicts and settlements for the remaining plaintiffs.

How Will the VET PFAS Act Change How the VA looks at PFAS?

If the VET PFAS Act is passed, veterans and their families may have a better chance at compensation for PFAS-related health problems, but it appears that the VA will continue to individually review each claim as it does under the current disability claims process. The VET PFAS Act would also allow family members, including those exposed while in the womb, to be reimbursed for PFAS-related health conditions arising from exposure while on military bases.

If You Were Exposed to PFAS During Military Service and Have Health Problems, What Should You Do?

If you or a family member thinks you may have had exposure to PFAS while serving in the military, talk to your health care provider about your concerns. The VA offers a toxic chemical risk assessment and is developing a registry for members exposed to PFAS.

You can file a disability claim through the VA for any conditions you believe are the result of exposure to PFAS.

There is ongoing litigation against the product manufacturers, and if you have health problems that stem from PFAS exposure, consulting with a plaintiff’s attorney with experience in firefighting foam litigation is another route to potentially getting the compensation you deserve.

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