“Forever chemicals” on Alaskan Army Bases are a Threat to Veterans and Surrounding Communities

by Miguel Levya

In the mid-to-late 1960s, the Navy’s research lab partnered with the 3M chemical corporation to develop a firefighting solution that would quickly quell difficult hydrocarbon fuel blazes. The result of this collaboration was aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), an efficient flame suppressant that became a staple on military bases around the US by the early 1970s.

Over the decades, the legacy use of AFFF led to significant quantities of toxic ‘forever chemicals’ leaching into the environment and drinking water sources. Despite its remoteness, Alaska has several military installations where contamination exceeded safety levels by many orders of magnitude.

AFFF’s Toxic Legacy

The secret to AFFF’s formidable flame-retardant qualities was the addition of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in its composition. PFAS are a class of over 12,000 artificial compounds whose durable carbon-fluoride molecular bonds earned them the moniker ‘forever chemicals.’

The primary PFAS subtypes used to manufacture AFFF were the compounds PFOA and PFOS, which were also present in other popular products like Teflon and Scotch Guard. However, what wasn’t known at the time was that the same physical properties that made PFAS effective flame surfactants also distinguished them as enduring health hazards.

PFAS’ synthetic structure prevents natural decay, making them persistent contaminants whose pronounced environmental mobility enables them to seep through deep soil layers and affect underground aquifers used for drinking water. Still, since PFAS were thought to be inert ingredients, mainly due to manufacturers’ withholding vital information regarding their potential health risks for decades, very few measures were taken to mitigate exposure.

As our livers and kidneys aren’t adapted to filtering out and eliminating manmade PFAS, they gradually build up in organ tissues and blood. Over time, chronic ‘forever chemical’ exposure can increase the risk of developing cancers, organ deficiencies, thyroid and endocrine disruptions, higher cholesterol, and several reproductive issues.

By the time AFFF ingredients’ hazardous nature became more widely known, PFAS were uncovered on over 700 US Army bases, with research into presumptive contamination indicating that the number is closer to 3,500, comprising both active and closed installations.

PFAS on Alaskan Bases

In 2016, the EPA published non-regulatory health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, capping what it deemed safe drinking water concentrations to a mere 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for each compound. In the following years, testing conducted under the auspice of the Department of Defense found that several Alaskan bases had PFAS levels way above the EPA’s recommended guidelines, mainly from the extensive use of AFFF in the past.

The most severely affected bases include Eielson Air Force Base (334,200 ppt), Galena Air Force Base (257,710 ppt), and the Air Force’s facilities at King Salmon Airport (96,340 ppt). Significant concentrations were also confirmed in Anchorage at the Kulis Air National Guard Base (16,040 ppt) and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (14,860 ppt – or 7,600 ppt and 7,260 ppt, respectively).

Despite their remote geographic position, PFAS were also detected above the EPA’s advisories in the Aleutians at the Amchitka (262 ppt) and Eareckson (10,320 ppt) Air Force Bases, as well as the Point Barrow Long Range Radar Site (262 ppt) in Utqiagvik.

Although PFAS’ toxicity is widely acknowledged today, the fact that they were long-regarded as benign chemicals prevented the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) proper evaluation of their associated health risks. Currently, the VA doesn’t recognize PFAS-related afflictions as presumptive illnesses, meaning that affected veterans seeking healthcare benefits and disability compensation first have to undergo the challenging bureaucratic process of proving their disease is service-connected.

Problematically, PFAS runoff from contaminated bases also represents a threat to the communities living in their vicinity and is eerily reminiscent of environmental racism considering the high percentage of native Alaskan populations in a one-mile radius around affected installations in King Salmon (33%), Galena (61%), and Utqiagvik (71%).

In February 2023, a report from the Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT) noted that several lakes adjacent to Kulis ANGB, JB Elmendorf-Richardson, and Eielson AFB contained elevated PFAS levels, with freshwater fish containing concentrations that were up to 2,000 times more elevated than those registered in lake water due to forever chemicals’ magnified bioaccumulation.

The PACT Act Overlooks PFAS’ Enduring Implications

The adoption of the bipartisan PACT Act in August 2022 was heralded as the most important development in decades for veterans who were exposed to toxic hazards during service, improving their access to benefits and compensation through the VA. For all of the positive progress the bill achieved, it fails to comprehensively address the threats emerging contaminants like PFAS represent.

While 23 new diseases were granted presumptive service connection under the bill, diseases stemming from chronic PFAS exposure, like thyroid and prostate cancer, aren’t afforded the same status. Meanwhile, a legislative proposal that was initially incorporated into the PACT Act and would’ve established a PFAS registry managed by the VA was inexplicably left out of the bill’s final draft.

Combating PFAS contamination’s enduring threats requires a wider involvement from federal and local authorities. Federal policymakers can propose amendments to the PACT Act that extend VA coverage for veterans exposed to AFFF’s toxins or lend their support to similarly-minded legislative proposals like the VETS PFAS Act.

Earlier this year, Alaska adopted legislation that will ban the use of AFFF starting in 2024. The decision comes on the heels of the EPA’s ongoing efforts to establish federal PFAS standards, which would also be applicable in the northernmost state, with the proposed limits for PFOA and PFOS being reduced to just 4 ppt.

Miguel Leyva serves as a case manager with Atraxia Law based in San Diego, helping individuals harmed by hazardous substances gather and organize the records and documentation required to support their toxic exposure claims.