Air National Guard base contaminates Martinsburg, W.V., drinking water with forever chemicals

A recent study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found elevated levels of Per- and Poly-fluoroalkyl substances in blood samples taken from residents of Martinsburg, West Virginia.

PFAS — also referred to as “forever chemicals” — were first detected in the city of Martinsburg’s Big Springs well in 2014. The source of the contamination is believed to be the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base where aqueous film-forming foam, which contains PFAS compounds, has been used to fight fires since the 1970s.

Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base is home to the 167th Airlift Wing, which since Sept. 11, 2001, has been deployed in various operations in support of the United States’ so-called “war on terror.” 

Because PFAS levels detected in 2014 did not exceed provisional health advisory levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the water contamination was disregarded and the city of Martinsburg took no action to address the issue. However, in 2016, when the EPA implemented a health advisory for the sum of two PFAS compounds — perfluorooctane sulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid — at 70 parts per trillion, the Big Springs well was taken offline and fitted with a new treatment system intended to address the contamination issue. The well was reactivated in December 2017.

The study, conducted 3.5 years after the Big Springs well was reactivated, found that PFOS and PFOA levels in the city’s drinking water had indeed been reduced from 114 to 33 ppt and 46 to 13 ppt, respectively. However, perfluorohexane sulfonic acid (PFHxS), an unregulated PFAS compound, was detected at 63 ppt. Blood samples taken from residents living near the National Guard Base found that PFHxS levels were 2.5 times higher than the national average.

Generations of inaction by the U.S. military and government

The harmful effects of PFAS compounds on both the environment and human health have been known for decades. Numerous studies found that individuals exposed to high concentrations of PFAS are at risk of liver disease, kidney cancer, decreased fertility, heightened cholesterol levels and reduced antibody effectiveness. Despite these known health impacts, PFAS has been used in AFFF on military bases since the 1960s.

Today, over 700 military bases and former bases around the country are suspected to be contaminated with high concentrations of PFAS. This not only poses a health risk for military personnel, but has a significant, long lasting effect on the communities adjacent to military installations. The U.S. Department of Defense is currently working on phasing out the use of AFFF. However, this is not expected to be completed until the end of 2024.

In addition to AFFF, PFAS compounds can also be found in household products such as stain repellents, polishes, paints, coatings and food packaging materials. These multi-billion dollar industries, driven by corporations such as 3M and DuPont, have become so prevalent that PFAS can now be detected in blood samples of nearly all Americans. However, true to the individualistic nature of capitalism, the study placed the burden on consumers by urging Martinsburg residents to eliminate or decrease potential exposure to household items containing PFAS compounds, such as stain-resistant products and food packaging materials.

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court in Martinsburg against seven defendants, including 3M and Dupont, for the damages and injury to Martinsburg residents who drank and used the city’s municipal water system.

The toll on the people and the planet

Unfortunately, the study conducted by the CDC and ATSDR failed to consider PFAS levels in Martinsburg’s groundwater, streams, creeks and rivers. Opequon Creek, a popular fishing and swimming area for local residents and a tributary stream of the Potomac River, lies just one mile east of the National Guard base. This is especially concerning given the long lasting and accumulative nature of PFAS compounds in wildlife such as fish.

Studies found that fish caught near similar military bases can contain up to 10 million ppt of PFAS compounds. Just an ounce of fish contaminated with this concentration of PFAS is equivalent to drinking 2 liters of water contaminated at 70 ppt, a concentration determined to be safe for consumption, for an entire lifetime.

The U.S. war machine, the largest carbon emitter on the planet, funded to the tune of nearly $1 trillion annually by the capitalist government that speaks in our name, is not only destructive to the global working class, but also to working-class communities here at home. U.S. imperialism contaminates our drinking water, poisons our rivers and streams and pollutes the air we breathe — all in order to uphold the unjust, profit-driven system of capitalism.

Martinsburg’s PFAS contamination highlights how struggles at home and abroad intersect. To save our communities and our environment requires fighting for an alternative system to that of capitalist imperialism. The alternative system is socialism.

Featured image is of the Potomac River. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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