MELBOURNE, Fl. (SBG) — Military bases across the country are dealing with contamination to their drinking and groundwater as a result of the use of toxic firefighting foam with known links to cancer and other health problems. The cost, according to service members who have lived on these bases and installations, isn't just environmental or financial. It's emotional.
With its prime location just steps from the Atlantic Ocean, Patrick Air Force Base in Florida looks like a dream assignment. Former military helicopter pilot Jim Holmes sees it as a nightmare that changed the way he views 30 years of service. He told Spotlight on America, "When I retired, I threw away the uniforms, threw away the medals. I’m done." The reason, he says, is his daughter's death. Kaela Holmes died earlier this year after battling an aggressive and rare brain cancer.
With Holmes' military buddies carrying her casket, Kaela was laid to rest just days after her 17th birthday. Jim and his wife Richelle, are still dealing with extreme grief. "It’s been hard for both of us," Holmes said. "I just can’t think of anything harder than watching your child die." Kaela’s death left many lingering questions for her family, who lived at Patrick Air Force Base and in nearby military housing for years. The facility, according to Department of Defense testing records, has an exceptionally high level of toxic chemicals known as PFAS in its groundwater.
PFAS are hazardous, man-made chemicals found in everything from food packaging to nonstick cookware. Studies show they have a link to certain kinds of cancer as well as other health problems. Earlier this year, Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist with Environmental Working Group, explained, "What we’re beginning to learn with more scientific evidence on PFAS is that PFAS can virtually impact every system in the body."
PFAS chemicals have made their way onto military bases and installations nationwide and around the globe, because of a widely used firefighting foam that contains those toxic chemicals. For decades the foam was used in daily training exercises, although that practice has been discontinued for land based operations. However, firefighting foam that uses PFAS chemicals is still the go-to fire killer in emergencies for the military. Holmes remembers seeing the foam used during his time at PAFB, although he wasn't aware of the potential health impacts.
"We had no idea. We had no idea about the carcinogenic in the firefighting foam," veteran helicopter pilot Jim Holmes said. "They spray it on the runway for a training exercise, then they take hoses and they spray it into the storm drains and the lagoons."
Use of that PFAS firefighting foam has tainted the water at hundreds of military bases from Florida to California. After seeing interactive mapping detailing the problem on the Environmental Working Group website, Spotlight on America began examining DOD records to look at PFAS levels on individual bases. Our team found some bases and installations with drinking water so badly contaminated with PFAS that wells and sometimes entire water systems had to be taken off line, after years of letting service members drink from them.
PFAS is also problematic for the military when it comes to groundwater, the water found below the earth’s surface that could potentially be a pathway for PFAS. Health experts have expressed concern that contaminated groundwater could be inhaled or contacted through the skin through a variety of methods, including when the water is used for irrigation or growing vegetables or if it trickles into recreational bodies of water. The Spotlight on America team found numerous bases with PFAS contamination levels at hundreds of times the amount considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency, although no formal national standard has been created.
The Department of Defense has begun to tackle its PFAS problem. This summer, a PFAS Task Force was created by Secretary Dr. Mark Esper, who wrote in a memo on his first day, "The Department is committed to taking a strong and proactive stance to address the effects arising out of any releases of these substances from all defense activities including the National Guard and Reserves. We must approach the problem in an aggressive and holistic way, ensuring a coordinated DoD-wide approach to the issue."
Mark Correll is the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure. He's part of the DOD Task Force and says he fully understands the concern being expressed by leadership and service members alike.
"I recognize that across the nation, folks are scared. They’re concerned," said Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure. "One of the things I like everybody to understand is this isn’t Air Force or DOD versus the community. I was born on an Air Force base, spent 29 years on active duty. My wife, my kids, we drank that water for all that time. Unfortunately, during that time we didn’t know. EPA didn’t know and many others didn't know what the effects might be. In fact, we don't know today."
The DOD is now pumping $40 million into a PFAS health impact study to look at the chemicals' effects when it comes to drinking water. The Task Force is also working to develop uniform policies to handle the crisis. When it comes to the Air Force specifically, Correll says it has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars identifying the places where hazardous firefighting foam tainted drinking water, both on and off base, and is taking drastic steps to protect people from it. "From our perspective we believe we’ve leaned forward, at least in the part that is most important, which is making sure no one is drinking water above the health advisory limit, which is where we are today."
Groundwater tainted by PFAS is still a question. It’s not a top priority even though its impact on human health is still undetermined. Jim Holmes has suspected it may have played a role in Kaela’s death, although there’s no known link to the cancer that took her life. A recent study done by the Florida Department of Health also brought him little comfort. The agency's research determined that a potential cancer cluster near Patrick Air Force Base was not related to PFAS contamination. Still, he has regrets about moving his family to the base.
"My biggest concern when she was born was something happening to me and her growing up without a dad," Holmes said. "I never would have guessed it would have turned the other way."