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Sound Off: VET PFAS Act would bring relief to ill veterans

Whidbey News-Times - 5/10/2024

By JONATHAN SHARP

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are among the most widespread and toxic environmental hazards in the U.S. today, affecting almost 97% of Americans. While PFAS poses a severe health threat to all, military service members, their families, and veterans are the most vulnerable to developing PFAS-induces illnesses, as they are regularly and directly exposed to one of the significant sources of pollution, the PFAS-containing aqueous film-forming firefighting foam, known as AFFF.

Even though working with AFFF is a job-related hazard, filing a military base toxic exposure claim for a VA disability benefits is a long and complicated bureaucratic procedure. Ill military members and veterans have to prove with medical evidence that their condition evolved or worsened during the years they served at a military base. However, in some cases, such evidence is difficult to get in retrospect.

The VET PFAS Act, introduced to the Senate on July 17, 2023, states that illnesses connected to PFAS exposure are a service-connected disability. This makes veterans eligible for disability payments and medical treatment from the VA without going through the application process. If voted as law, the act would bring justice to many ill veterans and victims of PFAS exposure caused by irresponsible policy management and commercial practices.

Concerns over PFAS contamination have been increasingly voiced over the past decades. They are often called "forever chemicals" because they are persistent and remain in the environment, in soil, ground- and surface water for years. Long-term exposure to PFAS leads to bioaccumulation and severe diseases such as decreased fertility, weakened immune systems, and various types of cancers.

AFFF, invented by the U.S. Navy and the 3M Company in 1967 against fuel and other flammable liquid fires, contains high concentrations of PFAS. AFFF has been the go-to solution since its invention, as it is one of the most effective foams capable of suppressing fires in seconds. Without alternatives approved by the Department of Defense, AFFF is still used by firefighters, especially in the military.

Hundreds of military bases nationwide have incredibly high levels of PFAS detected on their sites. One such base is Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. According to sampling done by the DOD on two different locations belonging to the base, the levels of PFOA and PFOS were 58,922 parts per trillion (ppt) at one and 3,823 ppt at the other site. PFOA and PFOS are the two most common types of PFAS, the ones known to cause cancer.

The levels of PFOA and PFOS detected on NAS Whidbey are drastically higher compared to the safe exposure limit of 70 ppt, with which the DOD operates. However, even the 70 ppt is far from the updated 4 ppt safe exposure limit set by the EPA in March 2023 for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water.

Since the EPA confirmed that PFAS are dangerous even in the most minor amounts, military firefighters and everyone stationed at military bases are at high risk of developing a disease, especially cancer, as exposure is inevitable. Still, the responsible parties are reluctant to do justice to the contamination victims, complicating the compensation claims filing.

The VET PFAS Act has been continuously overlooked since 2018. If voted to become law, it would bring long-awaited aid to the country's veterans and their dependents.

Jonathan Sharp is the chief financial officer at the Environmental Litigation Group, P.C., responsible for case evaluation, financial analysis, and asset management. Environmental Litigation Group is a law firm that assists civilian and military firefighters affected by exposure to toxic chemicals, especially PFAS.

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