Read the full article by Colin O’Neil (EWG)

“Industrial facilities across the country could be unwittingly burning the Pentagon’s legacy firefighting foam, according to an analysis of Pentagon records. The firefighting foam is made with the toxic ‘forever chemicals‘ known as PFAS.

And the incineration could be posing health risks to tens of thousands of people by exposing them to harmful PFAS emissions and contaminated drinking water. Most affected are communities living near or downwind of these facilities, who are already plagued by the toxic chemicals in their environment.

In a rush to destroy its stockpiles of PFAS-based firefighting foam, the Department of Defense has recently exploited a loophole that allows it to dispose of its PFAS waste through a process called fuel blending.

According to a Bennington College analysis, the DOD sent large amounts of its stockpiled foam to fuel blending facilities between 2016 and 2020, where it was mixed with other hazardous wastes and commercial fuel, then sent to be used as fuel at certain industrial furnaces, incinerators and cement kilns across the country.  

Congressional leaders are advancing legislation to address the DOD’s use of incineration to dispose of PFAS waste, including through the use of fuel blending, to ensure that the DOD can no longer exploit this loophole.

DOD has known since the 1970s that the foam was toxic. Very low doses of PFAS chemicals in drinking water have been linked to suppression of the immune system and are associated with an elevated risk of cancer, increased cholesterol and reproductive and developmental harms, among other serious health concerns.

PFAS are called forever chemicals because they build up in our bodies and never break down in the environment.

Decades of danger: DOD’s stockpiles of PFAS firefighting foam

For more than 50 years, DOD has required the use of the PFAS-based firefighting foam known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF. It has been widely used for decades, largely for training purposes at military installations.

As a result, at least 385 military sites have confirmed PFAS contamination of their drinking water supplies, and nearly 300 installations have suspected pollution, according to Pentagon records obtained by EWG.

Chemical companies eventually phased out two of the oldest and most notorious PFAS chemicals – PFOS, once an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard, and PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon. The military then shifted to newer formulations of AFFF, made with “short chain” PFAS.

Evidence suggests these chemicals pose many of the same health risks.

But this change left DOD with large stockpiles of older formulations in need of disposal or destruction, which it did most often through incineration or burning. According to Pentagon records, since 2016, the military has entered into contracts to incinerate more than 20 million pounds of AFFF.

Health and environmental risks of burning PFAS waste

The very qualities that make PFAS-based AFFF well suited for extinguishing jet fuel fires also make it difficult to destroy. There is no evidence that PFAS completely break down under typical industrial incineration practices.

In fact, studies show incinerators likely do not completely destroy PFAS, and they emit PFAS and toxic chemical byproducts. Research shows PFAS emitted through facility air stacks can travel several miles downwind.  

EWG scientists have warned that attempts to destroy PFAS through incineration could pollute frontline communities near or downwind of these facilities. The process can further cycle PFAS contamination back into these areas and the environment when PFAS are deposited in soil and drinking water supplies in downwind communities, increasing their exposure.

Researchers from Bennington College, in Vermont, found elevated levels of PFAS in soil and water samples taken from neighborhoods near the Norlite incinerator in Cohoes, N.Y., which received AFFF from the DOD until 2020. Communities in Ohio and West Virginia have raised similar concerns about the Heritage incinerator, in East Liverpool, Ohio, which also has a contract with the DOD to incinerate AFFF.

Some studies suggest, under ideal conditions, PFAS may break down if incinerated at facilities that can reach and maintain extremely high temperatures, more than 1,000 degrees Celsius. But the EPA admits “the effectiveness of incineration to destroy PFAS . . . is not well understood.”

Even DOD grasps that not enough is known about the combustion of PFAS-based firefighting foam. In April 2017, the Air Force requested proposals for the study of its disposal because ‘no satisfactory disposal method’ had been identified.”…