PFAS Contamination Cleanup Costs Could Exceed $2.1 Billion, GAO Reports

A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates that efforts to clean up toxic PFAS contamination from firefighter foam at and around military bases across the United States could cost U.S. taxpayers more than $2.1 billion. The GAO report was released amid growing concerns about the adverse human health effects of exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), toxic chemicals found in firefighting foam, or aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF). In fact, residents of communities nearby military bases where firefighting foam was used are now filing lawsuits seeking compensation for cancer and other serious health consequences allegedly associated with PFAS-contaminated drinking water. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with cancer or another serious side effect allegedly caused by PFAS exposure from firefighting foam, do not hesitate to speak to a firefighting foam injury lawyer about your legal options. Contact Consumer Safety Watch today for help.

Why are PFAS Used?

Firefighting foams, or aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF), containing PFAS have long been used to fight fires on military bases, at commercial airports, and by civilian fire departments. The chemicals are waterproof and heat resistant, which makes them ideal for extinguishing fuel-based fires and keeping them from reigniting. However useful these chemicals may be in suppressing difficult-to-fight fires though, there is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. According to the GAO report, “PFAS can migrate into the environment (e.g., drinking water) and may have adverse effects on human health.” Because they do not break down in the environment, PFAS can build up in the human body with prolonged or repeated exposure and cause serious or potentially life-threatening side effects, possibly including cancer. Unfortunately, the military’s decades-long use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam has led to the release of these toxic chemicals at or near hundreds of military installations nationwide.

Adverse Health Effects of PFAS Exposure

Exposure to PFAS in firefighter foam and contaminated drinking water has been linked to a number of adverse human health effects, including testicular cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer, and other types of cancer. PFAS are estimated to take thousands of years to degrade, and past research has shown that they can persist in the environment and enter the human body through the air, soil, food, or water. The potential for PFAS to leach into the groundwater and contaminate drinking water sources has become such a major concern, that the Department of Defense (DOD) has provided bottled water, installed water treatment systems, and taken other steps to address PFAS in drinking water at or near military sites where PFAS concentrations were found to exceed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisory levels.

In total, there are 687 military installations in the U.S. with a known or suspected release of PFAS due to firefighting foam use and other DOD activities, including 328 Army installations, 203 Air Force installations, 149 Navy installations, and seven Defense Logistics Agency installations. “DOD estimates that its future PFAS investigation and cleanup costs will total more than $2.1 billion beginning in fiscal year 2021, which is in addition to $1.1 billion in actual PFAS costs incurred through fiscal year 2020,” the GAO report states. “These costs will likely increase significantly, because DOD is still in the early phases of its PFAS investigation.” As of the end of fiscal year 2020, the DOD had already spent $1.1 billion on PFAS contamination cleanup efforts, yet there were still no military installations that had fully completed the investigation phase of the environmental restoration process and moved on to the actual cleanup phase.

The Push for PFAS-Free Firefighting Foams

In light of the potential adverse health outcomes associated with exposure to PFAS, manufacturers of PFAS chemicals and PFAS-containing products like firefighting foam face an increasing number of lawsuits filed by current and former firefighters and individuals who live or previously lived near military bases or training facilities where PFAS contaminated drinking water supplies. To address this growing health concern, there has been a substantial push to replace toxic PFAS-based firefighter foams with PFAS-free alternatives. As of March 2021, the DOD had identified six promising PFAS-free foam candidates that could replace PFAS-based foams, but according to the GAO report, these PFAS-free foams have so far not been able to meet the DOD’s existing performance requirements. Per the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, the DOD has until October 2023 to ensure that a PFAS-free firefighting foam alternative is available for use at all of its military installations.