News 3 looks into 'forever chemicals' reported at Hampton Roads military bases

Running water
Posted at 8:29 AM, May 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-19 18:38:20-04

HAMPTON, Va. - News 3’s team of investigators has been looking into what are called "forever chemicals" in our drinking water.

These are chemicals, when exposed, that could possibly impact your health.

News 3 is digging deeper into reports of where PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) chemicals have been found at local military bases.

PFAS chemicals are “man-made,” industrially-produced compounds.

“If people are being exposed, they should know,” Jared Hayes, policy analyst for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), told News 3. “It's just one of those little things that is everywhere, and no one seems to know about it.”

EWG is a national environmental health group that’s been keeping tabs on PFAS chemicals for more than 20 years.

“They've been really strongly linked to cancers - especially testicular and kidney cancer - harm to the reproductive system and harm to the immune system,” Scott Faber, EWG’s Senior Vice President for Government Affairs said.

Last August, EWG put out a report referencing Department of Defense (DOD) records they obtained, stating high levels of PFAS chemicals were found in groundwater of at least nine military installations.

This included three in Hampton Roads: Fort Eustis, Langley Air Force Base and Naval Weapons Station Yorktown.

  • Langley Air Force Base: 2.2 million ppt (parts per trillion)
  • Fort Eustis: 73,000 ppt (parts per trillion)
  • NWS Yorktown ppt (parts per trillion)

Hayes said the largest source of PFAS chemicals at bases is firefighting foam.

“It was used in training exercises widely,” he added.

“We use firefighting foam made with PFAS to put out jet fuel fires. It's very effective at putting out jet fuel fires,” Faber said. “Most of the PFAS has been discharged on the ground at military bases, and then worked its way into the groundwater at those bases.”

Of the nine military bases referenced EWG’s report, the highest detection of PFAS chemicals were found here at Langley at 2.2 million ppt (parts per trillion).

News 3 asked EWG: Why Langley?

“Air bases are obviously places where there are a lot of airplanes, helicopters, etc., and those are the places where more training would've been naturally undertaken with these firefighter foams made of PFAS,” Faber said.

“The EPA has a lifetime health advisory - the safe amount that a human can consume - that's at 70 parts per trillion,” Hayes added. “The amount found at Langley, 2.2 million parts per trillion, is orders of magnitude larger than that.”

News 3 took EWG’s report to DOD.

DOD officials wouldn’t give News 3 an on-camera interview, but instead referred to online resources from the department.

These resources said DOD officials have already invested more than $1.5 billion in PFAS-related research and cleanup.

“The $1.5 billion that they've invested so far [is] just a drop in the bucket,” Hayes responded.

The online resources also state DOD has a research and development effort in place to help speed up cleanup and find substitutes for firefighting foam.

“They're definitely getting the message,” Faber said. “They're beginning to take some action. The real test of whether or not DOD is taking this contamination crisis seriously or not is how quickly they're cleaning up these bases.”

News 3 also asked Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.) what she's doing to help mitigate PFAS chemicals at military bases.

In a statement, Luria said:

"PFAS chemicals threaten the health and safety of our service members and military families living on or near military installations in Coastal Virginia and throughout the country. I have taken an active role in examining and addressing this urgent public health issue, and I was proud to advance the bipartisan PFAS Action Act in 2021 to set enforceable limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water and direct federal resources to clean up contaminated PFAS sites. Additionally, the legislation authorizes $800 million to fund infrastructure upgrades and remediation measures that reduce and mitigate PFAS exposure. I will continue to prioritize the health of Coastal Virginians, our active-duty personnel, and military families and lead efforts to protect our drinking water and the Chesapeake Bay."
Rep. Elaine Luria (D-Va.)

The bill hasn’t passed the Senate, and has been sitting in committee since July 2021.

“It's really important that Congress and the DOD hold DOD accountable,” Faber said. “Make sure they clean up this mess, but more importantly, that they let service members know that they may have really high levels of PFAS in their blood so they can have a conversation with their doctor.”

If you’ve served on or lived near one of the mentioned bases in Hampton Roads, especially more than 10 years ago, EWG recommends you talk to your doctor and get a blood test to look at PFAS levels and help reduce ongoing exposures.

When it comes to drinking water at bases, Faber said you’re not drinking as much PFAS chemicals as compared to 10 years ago. He added if you’re living on a military base today, the water meets the EPA’s standard for the safe amount of PFAS that a human can consume.

We asked the Hampton VA if they had a focus on PFAS chemicals, if there were any outreach efforts to service men and women, and if the Hampton VA Medical Center has treated any veterans and families for PFAS related illnesses. The Hampton VA referred us back to the Department of Defense and said, “Our Engineering department could not provide any information.”

Click here for more News 3 Investigations.