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Date Posted:09/11/19
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Esper creates task force to deal with cancer causing chemicals on military installations
Posted on: 07/25/19
This Story Expires on: 09/30/19
New Defense Secretary Mark Esper has created a task force to look at the military's use of cancer-causing firefighting foam. (Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht/Air National Guard)">

New Defense Secretary Mark Esper has created a task force to look at the military's use of cancer-causing firefighting foam. (Tech. Sgt. Matt Hecht/Air National Guard)



Updated 4:50 PM EST with more details from the memo.

On his first full day as secretary of defense, Mark Esper has signed a memo establishing a task force to deal with cancer-causing chemicals found on military bases.

The purpose, he told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday, is to “address all the key areas” of the military’s response to the presence of harmful chemicals used in firefighting foam.

The chemicals, perfluorooctanoic acid and/or perfluorooctane sulfonate have been found to have caused contamination at more than 230 military installations, according to an environmental advocacy group. The Environmental Working Group says that harmful levels have been detected in groundwater or drinking water sources of the fluorinated compounds, known collectively as PFAS.

An additional 44 civilian airports are included that are also used by Air National Guard units, according to the group.

The new task force will be stood up within 30 days, with an update due to Esper’s desk within 180 days of the memo.

Earlier this month, the Environmental Working Group, which has released maps about the location of the contamination, blasted the Pentagon and EPA for the way they’ve dealt with the issue.

“The EPA and the Department of Defense have utterly failed to treat PFAS contamination as a crisis demanding swift and decisive action,” said Ken Cook, president of EWG, in a statement announcing the discovery of the additional sites.

“It’s time for Congress to end new PFAS pollution and clean up legacy contamination,” Cook said at the time.

A 2016 Environmental Protection Agency health advisory recommended water sources contain no more than 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, of the PFAS chemicals perfluorooctanoic acid, and/or perfluorooctane sulfonate at sites being addressed, including those under federal cleanup programs.

While the EPA’s health advisory has been in effect since 2016, neither the Pentagon nor any municipality was required to meet the 70 ppt standard because the contamination limit is an advisory, not a requirement.

For decades, the military used firefighting foams that contained PFAS chemicals. These per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are also found in hundreds of everyday household products. PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancers and other health problems.

When told that thousands of veterans believe their cancers are linked to the chemicals, Esper said that the Department of Veterans Affairs should be consulted.

“I think we need to follow the science on this and one of the agencies that we should be talking to is VA on this,” he said. “We just need to understand the problem and make sure we have our hands fully around it, follow the science, and then obviously if there is a relationship we need to do our due diligence. “

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