CLAY COUNTY – Throughout the 20th century, the U.S. Army's mismanagement of toxic substances has irremediably impacted the lives of countless individuals who lived and served on severely contaminated military bases. In cases like North Carolina's infamous Camp Lejeune, close to one million residents were unintentionally exposed to chemical hazards for over three decades in the form of volatile organic compounds leaching from decaying oil, solvents, degreasers, and industrial chemicals.
With more than 60 toxic contaminants identified on the base's grounds, Camp Lejeune was designated as a Superfund site, only remaining operational due to ongoing cleanup projects and periodic site reviews.
Although Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs have actively sought to address these issues, passing laws and establishing eligibility criteria for service-related exposure, specific hazards with the potential for long-lasting harm remain largely unaccounted for. Per/poly-fluoroalkyl substances are one such hazard, commonly known as "forever chemicals" because they don't decompose.
PFAS was the primary ingredient in aqueous-film-forming foam), a type of fire suppressant used by the military since the 70s in training scenarios and to put our difficult fuel blazes. However, since they don't break down naturally and are environmentally persistent, PFAS can build up in the body and lead to several types of cancer, thyroid issues, lower birth weights, decreased vaccine efficiency in children and higher blood pressure in pregnant women. In 2016, the EPA set a lifetime advisory level for the most prevalent PFAS compounds of only 70 parts per trillion.
Due to the army's extensive use of AFFF in previous decades, "forever chemicals" were found on the premises of over 700 bases across the US. Florida alone hosts more ethan 20 such installations, many exceeding concentrations reported at Camp Lejeune, including NAS Cecil Field and NAS Jacksonville.
Coincidentally, both bases were listed as Superfund sites in 1989, For many veterans and military families, the time they spent on contaminated bases incurred a heavy toll.
Jane D. is one of the client from Orange Park resident who previously lived at NAS Jacksonville for 14 years. During her stay, she suffered two miscarriages and was diagnosed with breast cancer years after leaving the base. While multiple toxic agents were identified at NAS Jacksonville, none came close to the levels of PFAS uncovered in 2018.
Currently, my associates are reviewing close to 200 toxic claims from Clay County veterans and their relatives. Like Jane, many were stationed on bases where PFAS contamination was later confirmed and developed afflictions consistent with exposure to these ubiquitous contaminants.
Despite the risks they represent, the U.S. Army's attitude towards "forever chemicals" began shifting only over the past decade due to the growing body of clinical evidence indicating their toxicity. Since they were originally believed to be benign, exposure to PFAS didn't factor into the VA's long-term considerations of service members' health. In august 2022, Congress passed the Honoring Our PACT Act with near unanimous support. The bill seeks to improve access to adequate benefits and compensation for veterans and relatives who developed diseases due to toxic exposure on contaminated bases.
Even though the PACT Act is widely regarded as a significant step forward, the bill doesn't completely cover the health risks associated with emerging contaminants. While more than 20 new conditions are now afforded a service-related status, the VA still doesn't consider PFAS-related illnesses like thyroid and prostate cancer as presumptive of toxic exposure.
Since different toxins can trigger similar conditions, clinically determining which of the many chemical hazards present on bases like NAS Jacksonville or Cecil Field was the actual cause can be financially challenging for many individuals.
Fortunately, the growing awareness regarding PFAS' potential for enduring harm has determined the adoption of several measures that provide promising prospects of higher regulatory involvement. The National Defense Authorization Act will finance vital PFAS remediation projects on the most affected bases around the country. It will also mandate the phasing out of AFFF from military use by late 2024.
Most encouraging of all, the EPA may be the catalyst for future improvements as it prepares to set federally-enforceable standards for "forever chemicals" in drinking water this fall. In June 2022, the agency updated its advisories for PFAS compounds to reflect the dangers they represent, even in minuscule amounts, slashing what it deems acceptable to under 0.02 ppt.
Author Jonathan Sharp serves as Chief Financial Officer at Environmental Litigation Group PC, a law firm established in Birmingham, Alabama, that specializes in toxic exposure and helps individuals injured by toxic chemicals on U.S. army bases.