OCTOBER 4, 2021 – For years, the epidemic of toxic contamination at military bases & installations owned and/or used by the United States Armed Forces has resulted in poisoned the environment and placed military personnel and their families at risk for severe health problems. It is remarkable that contamination at military bases has become so widespread and dangerous that more than two-thirds of all Superfund sites designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are military-affiliated.
The United States military is a massive enterprise tasked with the responsibility of operating industrial manufacturing and testing facilities for weapons, military vehicles, chemical warfare, and research; ship, vehicle, and aircraft manufacturing and repair facilities; training and maneuver bases; and other military-related products and services. These activities generate by-products and enormous amounts of hazardous waste that significantly harm both the environment and human health.
Beyond the Line of Duty: The Long-Term Effects of Toxic Exposure
Solvents commonly used for metal cleaning, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) resulted from discharge of AFFF, oils, metalworking fluids, and chemical components used in explosives have all leaked into groundwater after being dumped into pits, seeping from corroding containers, buried in unlined landfills, or left on test ranges.
In 1986, the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA) was enacted by Congress, and it established the Defense Environmental Restoration Program (DERP) to oversee the Department of Defense’s environmental cleanup efforts. The challenge was immense; most of the contamination is in groundwater, which has to be extracted and conveyed to an above-ground treatment system that removes the contaminants, a process that will need to be replicated at the site after site. The largest bases sprawl over thousands of acres and have industrial facilities, airfields, ports, and landfills that impact the environment.
Organic solvent neurotoxicity is a significant growing concern in occupational health since it is linked with limb weakness or numbness; loss of memory, vision, and/or intellect; and cognitive and behavioral impairments. At this point, the consequences of long-term low-level solvent exposures on the central nervous system (CNS) are becoming more extensively recognized and documented.
Solvents enter the body via absorption through the skin, inhalation into the lungs, or swallowing. The potential health effects from exposure to solvents depend on a number of factors, such as:
- the evaporation rate and the characteristics of that solvent
- what is the concentration of the solvent at the contaminated site
- the length of the exposure
Acute exposure due to short-term exposure to organic solvents results in depression of the central nervous system, psychomotor impairment, and oxygen deprivation. Immediate signs of toxicity include disorientation, euphoria, dizziness, and confusion, all of which are reversible in the majority of instances if the victim is removed out of the poisonous environment quickly. With exposure to a sufficiently high concentration of solvent vapors, the signs may progress to paralysis, unconsciousness, seizures, and death. Airborne concentrations of solvents sufficient to cause acute toxic effects are typically in the range of 1,000 to 10,000 ppm, although these are compound-specific.
Bipartisan Legislation to Aid Veterans Suffering from Toxic Exposure
It is critical that we take all necessary steps to monitor, remediate, and prevent toxic chemical contamination on the bases where our servicemen and their families live – yet the harm has already been done for many of them. Thousands of military members and their families – spouses and children – have developed cancer and other health issues as a result of prolonged or repeated exposure to these carcinogens.
As a result of exposure to hazardous chemicals during military service, tens of thousands of veterans have suffered from diseases or impairments that have persisted long after they have come home. Despite obvious dangers and exposures while serving their country, many veterans are denied health treatment and benefits, and that is because it may take years for possible health effects to manifest themselves following exposure to chemicals. Continuous exposure to certain hazardous chemicals may result in severe, and potentially permanent, damage. For example, being exposed to even small amounts of PFAS over a long period of time could cause concentrations to build up to harmful levels that may result in several different health issues, including cancer. The illness will continue to perpetuate once it has begun, regardless of whether or not exposure continues or diminishes.
Earlier this year, Sens. Thom Tillis and Maggie Hassan reintroduced a bill in the United States Senate to change the way military members who have been exposed to hazardous chemicals in the line of duty are treated and compensated for diseases linked with toxic exposure (a previous attempt in 2020 failed to gain traction). Because it would allow for consultation and testing via the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Toxic Exposure in the American Military Act would help eligible veterans obtain better access to health care services. It’s worth mentioning that Hassan’s home state of New Hampshire is home to the old Pease Air Force Base, which was placed on the EPA’s Superfund list in 1990 due to widespread contamination with PFAS – a class of hazardous chemicals that remain in the environment – and other toxic agents.
With a president in power who believes wartime hazardous exposure was to blame for his son’s death, veterans, activists, and legislators are optimistic that substantial progress may be made toward providing treatment and benefits to sick and dying veterans, as well as their surviving families members.
About the author:
Jonathan Sharp is the CFO at Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. He is responsible for client interactions as well as the logging, management, and processing of claims. Environmental Litigation Group, P.C. was established in 1990 in Birmingham, Alabama, with the mission of providing the finest quality legal services at the best value to clients who have been injured as a result of being exposed to toxic chemicals such as asbestos, paraquat, and PFAS, among others.