‘Not knowing is awful’: Studies point to impact of PFAS on veterans, but resources are limited

Multiple studies are linking a group of toxic chemicals to health conditions that former military and civilian firefighters may have developed after exposure to firefighting foam they used decades ago.

“It’s a shame that my firefighter friends, when they were diagnosed with cancer, didn’t know about the risk of the foam,” said Les Pomerville, a Navy veteran and Beavercreek resident. “I’ve lost a lot of people, who also served, to all different kinds of cancer.”

Officials at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base say they are taking multiple steps to prevent harm from exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of powerful, toxic chemicals used in firefighting foam for decades.

More than 700 military installations are likely contaminated with PFAS, according to the Environmental Working Group, an organization that studies health and the environment.

Research about PFAS and servicemembers

Although research of PFAS is ongoing, the National Cancer Institute is studying PFAS’ links to thyroid, kidney, ovarian and prostate cancer.

More recently, a new federal study by the National Cancer Institute shows a strong connection between (PFOS), a type of PFAS chemical, and testicular cancer.

The study shows evidence that U.S. Air Force service workers who were firefighters had elevated levels of PFAS in their bloodstreams and less risk for those who lived on installations with high levels of PFAS in the drinking water.

Military members with testicular cancer had higher blood levels of PFOS than those who had not been diagnosed with cancer, the study found.

Research through the National Institute of Health that points to PFAS’ impact on lung function and its accumulation in lung tissue is also ongoing.

Pomerville said he can’t help but wonder if longtime exposure to PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam led to his health conditions and was tied in any way to deaths of some of his fellow firefighters.

Toxic firefighting foam

Pomerville served in the U.S. Navy for 12 years, and one of his duties was to protect his ship from fire. It’s a role he took pride in, as his father was a firefighter.

Training to fight fires for the military in 1965 was a different challenge than it is today, said Pomerville, who was stationed in Virginia at the time. Uniforms were lighter and equipment was less extensive, to start.

“The firefighting foam of yesteryear and the foam of today are also definitely different,” he said.

Producers of PFAS in the 1940s created the persistent group of chemicals to extinguish flames, particularly fire sparked by fuel. Firefighting foam with PFAS became a common element at airports and military bases throughout the country.

Locally, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base began using this firefighting foam in the 1970s. The U.S. Air Force began phasing out the use of firefighting foam that contained the most common types of PFAS — PFOS and PFOA — from 2015 to 2017, replacing it with a foam that was more “environmentally responsible,” according to a spokesperson.

But this updated kind of firefighting foam contains other kinds of PFAS — newer versions that are more difficult to filter out of water treatment facilities due to their shorter chain molecules.

Read the whole project:

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- Concerned about PFAS contamination? Here’s 5 things you can do at home

- Health, infrastructure costs of PFAS in the billions; Who should pay for it?

“The Air Force is continuing to aggressively pursue PFAS-free firefighting technologies in anticipation of the impending ban on use of PFAS-containing foams,” according to a statement provided by the U.S. Air Force. “None of the commercially available PFAS-free foams meet (Department of Defense)’s strict safety standards to rapidly extinguish dangerous fuel fires.”

When this foam must be used for emergencies, the Air Force treats each use as a spill response to limit PFAS releases to the environment, according to the military branch.

Pomerville said his life is currently filled with doctor’s appointments for issues he has related to breathing. But the 77-year-old isn’t sure if PFAS in firefighting foam is related to his health conditions in any way, and he’s not sure he’ll ever know.

Blood tests that show PFAS levels in the body exist, but they are not routine tests offered by most doctor’s offices and health departments, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. PFAS blood tests also cost hundreds of dollars to perform.

A doctor once told Pomerville that his family may know PFAS’ impact on him after he dies and an autopsy is performed.

“Not knowing is awful,” he said.

Prevention efforts at military bases

Departments that oversee the Dayton-area military base have also in recent years invested in big-dollar changes to address PFAS.

Its two water systems that tested higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed maximum contamination limit (MCL) of four parts per trillion (PPT) for PFOS and PFOA were in Areas A and B of the base.

Water from those systems is used in on-base dormitories, fitness centers and hundreds of other housing units used by base employees.

Since 2015, the Department of the Air Force has provided $44 million dollars to address PFAS at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. In 2017, the Air Force installed a PFAS treatment system consisting of granular activated carbon at the base, according to the spokesperson.

The Department of the Air Force also committed another $6 million in 2020 to conduct a remedial investigation at 26 foam release sites across the base.

Another $29 million was committed to the construction of PFAS treatment systems at the base in 2024, and a Department of Air Force-wide project at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base is being conducted to evaluate potential sources of PFAS that are not related to firefighting foam.

Some help available for veterans

The Department of Veterans Affairs does not recommend blood testing for PFAS, saying on its website that “blood tests cannot be linked to current or future health conditions or guide medical treatment decisions.”

But that could soon change. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., co-chair of the congressional PFAS Task Force, in June introduced the Veterans Exposed to Toxic PFAS Act, which would require the VA to treat conditions linked to exposure and provide disability benefits for those affected, including for testicular cancer, Kaiser Health News reported.

“The last thing (veterans) and their families need to go through is to fight with the VA to get access to benefits we promised them when they put that uniform on,” Kildee told Kaiser Health News.

More than 3,300 lawsuits have been filed over firefighting foam and PFAS contamination; beyond 3M’s massive settlement, DuPont and other manufacturers reached a nearly $1.2 billion agreement with water utility companies in June, according to Kaiser Health News.

The Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission invites veterans who believe they have been impacted by PFAS exposure while serving to call its office for more guidance regarding Veterans Affairs compensation claims.

The county’s veterans service commission has seen fewer than a dozen veterans file a claim for compensation due to health issues believed to be related to long term PFAS exposure, like firefighting foam, during their military service, according to Montgomery County Veterans Service Commission administrative officer Bryan Suddith.

“Cases like these are decided by the VA on a case-by-case basis and can take months to adjudicate,” Suddith said.

Ohio’s Veterans Affairs office did not return a request for comment in regard to the number of claims related to firefighting foam that have been filed in the state.

Pomerville said he’s unsure what can be done for veterans who served decades ago, but he hopes veterans and active servicemembers and firefighters are aware of the risks of firefighting foam.

“Whether it was firefighting foam that caused my problems... we can’t tell,” he said. “But if they can pinpoint things, then maybe some of the firefighters and Navy personnel who were involved in the foam could get action going with the VA.”

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