Germany is experiencing a public health crisis with millions of people potentially exposed to drinking water contaminated with Per and Poly Fluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS.
A major source of this chemical contamination comes from the aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) used in routine fire-training on U.S. military bases. After igniting, then dousing massive fires with the lethal foam containing PFAS, the American bases allow the poisons to leach into the groundwater to contaminate neighboring communities which use groundwater in their wells and municipal water systems.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), exposure to PFAS “may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).” PFAS also contributesmicro-penis, and low sperm count in males.
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Confidential U.S. military documents leaked to the German news magazine Volksfreund in 2014 showed that groundwater at Ramstein Airbase contained 264 ug/L or 264,000 parts per trillion (ppt.) of PFAS. Other samples at Ramstein were shown to contain 156.5 ug/l or156,500 ppt. The water monitoring program of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate in the vicinity of the Spangdahlem Air Base found PFAS at concentrations of 1.935 ug/l or 1,935 ppt. The drainage system in Spangdahlem is still spreading the chemicals.
Harvard scientists say Perfluoro Octane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluoro Octanoic Acid (PFOA), two of the most deadly kinds of PFAS, are likely to be harmful to human health at concentrations of 1 part per trillion (ppt) in drinking water. Fishing ponds, streams and rivers around the airfields in Germany are a thousand times more contaminated than they should be according to EU requirements.
More than 3,000 harmful PFAS chemicals have been developed.
It is instructive to compare the levels of groundwater contamination in Germany with this DOD report on PFAS contamination at U.S. military bases. Like many American bases in the continental U.S., Ramstein and Spangdahlem are highly contaminated.
The U.S. military assumes no liability and generally refuses to pay for cleaning up the contamination it has caused. Army Col. Andrew Wiesen, the DOD’s Director of Preventive Medicine for the Office of Health Affairs, says the contamination is the responsibility of the EPA. “We don’t do the primary research in this area,” he told the Marine Corps Times. “The EPA is responsible for that,” he said. “DoD has not independently looked at the compounds and does not have “additional research into this, about the health effects of PFOS/PFOA, at least as far as I know.”
The Pentagon pays nearly $100 million for each new fighter jet and the expensive machines are prone to catch fire. Foams with per and poly fluoroalkyl substances are the most efficient way to quickly extinguish a fire that might otherwise destroy one of these weapons. The U.S. military has known these chemicals are devastating since 1974, but they’ve managed to keep it a secret, pretty much, until now.
PFOS and PFOA are known as the “forever chemicals” because they do not degrade in the environment. The military branches are in the process of switching to other slightly less lethal fire-fighting foams, but still toxic.
To provide an illustration, the Wurtsmith, Michigan Airbase was closed in 1993 while the streams and the groundwater remain deadly. In late 2018, Michigan health authorities issued a “Do Not Eat” advisory for deer taken within five miles of the old base. It’s been 26 years and the water deer drink is still poisonous.
These chemicals are not regulated by the EPA. Some speculate this is because of their military applications. Instead, the EPA makes recommendations to states and water agencies regarding these chemicals. The EPA’s combined Lifetime Health Advisory (LHA) limit for both chemicals is 70 ppt, a number environmentalist have said is dangerously high.
The U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has set lifetime drinking water levels of 11 ppt for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS. It’s understandable, then, why several states have stopped waiting for the Trump administration’s EPA to act and have recently set much lower thresholds to protect public health.
Meanwhile, Germany has established a relatively high “health-based guide value” for PFOA + PFOS at 300 ppt. The European Union has proposed a drinking water directive at levels of 100 ppt. for individual PFAS’s and 500 ppt. for the sum of PFAS’s. See this chart for PFOS/PFAS guidelines in the U.S. and Europe.
The Ramstein photo above shows an airport hangar filling up with the fire-fighting foam. The U.S. Air Force Command at Ramstein, explained, “We had about 4,500 gallons of water coming out per minute from a 40,000 gallon tank.” The article reports, “The hangar is designed to control pollution through an underground network of storage that collects the water and is released into a sanitary sewer in controlled amounts and is regulated by a sewage treatment plant in Landstuhl.”
The underlying reason for this contamination is that U.S. military specifications for Class B firefighting foams (mil-F-24385) requires the use of fluorinated chemicals.
PFAS Contamination Not Limited to Ramstein and Spangdahlem
In Bitburg, the groundwater was shown to contain PFAS at levels of 108,000 ppt. Like Wurtsmith, the U.S. military walked away from Airbase Bitburg in 1994, but the remediation of environmental damage may never end. These carcinogenic pollutants have also been found at the former NATO airfield Hahn, the airbase Büchel and the airfields Sembach and Zweibrücken.
According to Volksfreund, a stream near Bitburg contains 7700 times more PFAS than the EU considers acceptable. Günther Schneider, a farmer and environmental activist from nearby Binsfeld, has old photos that show how the brook that flows through Binsfeld looked like a fluffy white ribbon.
Photo evidence of foam contamination is rare in Germany, but in America, it’s plentiful.
The sludge from the sewage treatment plants of the Spangdahlem and Bitburg airfields is so heavily contaminated it cannot be applied to fields. Instead, the Germans incinerate it, causing even more environmental havoc.
Günther Schneider calls for a ban on PFAS and the rehabilitation of contaminated areas. Meanwhile, the German nation is slowly awakening to this profound environmental crisis. They’re questioning whether the U.S. military is committed under international law to abide by regulatory standards.