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Veterans Law

Report Outlines Health Effects of Harmful Substances Used on Military Bases

Kaitlyn Degnan

September 20, 2018

Updated: November 20, 2023

Report Outlines Health Effects of Harmful Substances Used on Military Bases

The 852-page report was released Thursday, June 21, by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) after public pressure from lawmakers. The report is a toxicological profile which describes the dangers and potential harms of the chemicals based on a review of prior scientific studies.

The report focuses on populations of people near contaminated water sources, not just military locations.


Harmful Chemicals Present on Military Bases

A previously released report from the Pentagon listed the known contaminants, and the Department of Defense (DoD) recognized 401 bases in the United States where there was one or more known or suspected perfluorinated compound. Of these bases, 36 had contaminated drinking water on the base, and 90 had contaminated drinking or groundwater either on or off base.

Overall, “25 Army bases; 50 Air Force bases, and 49 Navy or Marine Corps bases” tested higher than the accepted levels of PFOS and PFOAs in their ground water sources or drinking water. According to an April 2018 report, DoD sought to address the “36 direct drinking water sources contaminated.” However, DoD has only able to address the issue at 24 locations where they manage the water supply. At the remaining 12, drinking water sources are managed by either a contracted vendor or a local utility company, and EPA guidelines cannot be enforced on these entities.

Contaminants such as perflouroctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOS and PFOAs, are used on military bases in the form of military fire-fighting foam. These compounds do not degrade into the soil or water, and are highly toxic. Humans can absorb them through drinking water, or through contact with soil and air. The chemicals have also been found in fetuses through the umbilical cord and breast milk, and can cause developmental problems in children.


How Do the Chemicals Effect People?

The toxicological profile notes that these chemicals can have multiple health effects on people. Potential health effects includes:

  • Liver damage
  • Increase in serum lipid levels, particularly total cholesterol and LDLs
  • Pregnancy-induced hypertension and/or pre-eclampsia
  • Increased risk of thyroid disease
  • Decreased response to vaccines (in adults and children)
  • Increased risk of asthma (in adults and children)
  • Risk of decreased fertility
  • Decrease in birth weight of infants


How Are People Exposed?

According to the toxicology profile, major exposure pathways for PFOAs are oral exposure from ingesting food and water, “inhalation of impregnated clothes, and dust ingestion.” On military bases where the fire-fighting foam was used, for example, the foam could seep into the soil or drain into waterways. This can then contaminate drinking water on military bases, exposing those who are stationed or live on the base. Additionally, since the chemicals do not degrade when they are in water and soil, the chemicals can linger in the soil and water for long periods of time, increasing the chance of exposure.

About the Author

Bio photo of Kaitlyn Degnan

Kaitlyn joined CCK in September of 2017 as an Associate Attorney. Her practice focuses on representing disabled veterans before the United States Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims.

See more about Kaitlyn