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Banning PFAS 'forever chemicals' may threaten US national security

In a recent development, the Pentagon has expressed concerns that sweeping bans on PFAS chemicals, often referred to as ‘forever chemicals,’ could jeopardize United States national security. These substances are ubiquitous in numerous everyday products and have been connected to health issues like cancer and infertility.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) relies heavily on various PFAS-containing items, including weapons, uniforms, batteries, and microelectronics. 

Military equipment and technology

In a report to Congress in August, the DoD stated that comprehensive regulations or significant market shifts leading to the unavailability of PFAS could significantly hinder national security and the department’s operational capabilities.

The report highlights the vital role of PFAS chemicals in maintaining key military equipment and technology critical to military readiness and sustainability. Items ranging from microelectronic chips, lithium-ion batteries, helicopters, torpedoes, and tanks to everyday military gear like shoes, tents, and duffel bags all incorporate PFAS.

Health concerns

PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, are synthetic chemicals found in a vast array of products due to their properties that render items nonstick, waterproof, and oil-resistant. 

However, they have been associated with numerous health concerns, including various cancers, low birth weight, thyroid issues, and developmental delays in children.

Military personnel may face increased risks from PFAS exposure due to the Department of Defense’s use of aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a PFAS-containing foam for extinguishing certain types of fires. AFFF is highly effective but now known to be harmful to humans. The use of these chemicals has resulted in environmental contamination, including PFAS-laden water near military bases.

Military applications 

The issue has gained further attention with numerous firefighters and military workers suing manufacturers after observing higher cancer rates among their colleagues. 

PFAS are utilized in a wide range of military applications, from water-repellent uniform coatings to brake fluid in aircraft, insulation in submarines, and missile components to enhance explosive performance and stability.

A government study in July established a direct correlation between testicular cancer and PFOS, a PFAS variant detected in the blood of many military personnel. In March, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed the first-ever limits on PFAS in drinking water. 

Furthermore, the 2023 James M. Inhofe National Defense Authorization Act instructed the Pentagon to evaluate the extent of PFAS in military equipment.

PFAS-based foam

The Department of Defense plans to discontinue purchases of PFAS-containing firefighting foam by year-end and phase it out entirely by 2025. The use of this foam in training was already ceased in 2020 following a congressional mandate. 

Although new Navy ships are being built with alternative fire suppression methods like water mists, PFAS-containing systems are still in limited use where alternatives are deemed unsuitable. 

For existing ships, there are currently no viable alternative foams, and the report emphasizes the dependence on PFAS-based foam for the safety and survival of naval ships and crews until an effective replacement is identified.


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