Tests Find High Levels of Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water at McChord AFB, Ft. Lewis

Tests Find High Levels of Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ in Drinking Water at McChord AFB, Ft. Lewis

Friday, September 13, 2019

WASHINGTON – Drinking water supplies at two Washington state Army installations are contaminated with extremely high levels of the toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, according to Department of Defense data obtained by EWG under the Freedom of Information Act.

The sites are McChord Air Force Base and Fort Lewis, both located just south of Tacoma. The two bases merged in 2010. They now fall under the authority of the Army and are referred to as Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The sprawling installation is home to much of the 2nd Infantry Division, the 7th Infantry Division and the 1st Special Forces Group. Newly obtained DoD data provides updated details about PFAS contamination at the previously known sites.

There are more than 25,000 soldiers and civilians who live and work on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which also supports more than 100,000 military retirees and nearly 30,000 family members.

The detections occurred during tests conducted in 2017 and 2018. Some PFAS have been linked at very low doses to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, thyroid and kidney disease, and other health problems.

Nationally, the data provided through the FOIA added 90 current and former Army and Army National Guard installations to the list of locations that are contaminated with PFAS chemicals. They raise the number of Army installations with known PFAS contamination of drinking water or groundwater from 18 to 108, and the total number of military installations with known contamination from 207 to 297.

Click here to see the complete list.

The levels of PFAS detected at both McChord AFB and Fort Lewis were well above the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion, or ppt. The concentration of PFAS chemicals for McChord was 303 ppt and for Fort Lewis, 144.8 ppt.  

Some independent studies suggest 1 ppt or lower as a safe level of exposure, which is endorsed by EWG. Some states have set limits ranging from 11 ppt to 20 ppt.

Compounds detected in the drinking water at both locations included the two most notorious PFAS chemicals – PFOA, once used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. Both were phased out under pressure from the EPA after studies found links to cancer, harm to the reproductive and immune systems, and other health problems.

The DoD data confirms for the first time the presence of PFAS contamination at the Montesano Armory east of Aberdeen, but at .8 ppt it is below the level EWG considers safe.

PFAS chemicals have been detected in the drinking water of 19 million Americans in 49 states, and unreleased EPA data show that up to 110 million people may have PFAS-contaminated drinking water.

“The level of PFAS found in the drinking water at both installations is far higher than most experts believe is safe for people,” said EWG Senior VP for Government Affairs Scott Faber. “Service members who work at these facilities and the people who live nearby are likely drinking water contaminated with PFAS chemicals at concentrations that raise serious health concerns. The only way to tackle this ballooning contamination crisis impacting our military personnel and millions of others in Washington and across the country is for Congress to step up and take action.”

In June, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, which contains a number of critical PFAS monitoring and cleanup amendments. Included was one that requires the Pentagon to phase out, by 2023, the use of PFAS-based firefighting foam and require military facilities to meet state cleanup standards. 

In July the House passed its version of the act, with several PFAS amendments, including one that would designate PFAS as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law.

Negotiators from the House and Senate are hammering out a final version of the defense spending bill. EWG is pressing lawmakers to include all of the PFAS amendments in the bill Congress sends to President Trump for his consideration.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.