FOUNTAIN, Colo. — When Army Staff Sgt. Samuel Fortune returned from Iraq, his body battered by war, he assumed he’d be safe.
Then, the people around him began to get sick. His neighbors, all living near five military bases, complained of tumors, thyroid problems and debilitating fatigue. Soon, the Colorado health department announced an unusually high number of kidney cancers in the region. Fortune’s wife fell ill.
The military, it turned out, had been leaching toxic chemicals into the water for decades.
Fortune felt “stabbed in the back,” he said. “We give our lives and our bodies for our country, and our government does not live up to their end of the deal.”
That was 2016. Since, the Defense Department has admitted that it allowed a firefighting foam to slip into at least 55 drinking water systems at military bases around the globe, sometimes for generations. This exposed tens of thousands of Americans, possibly many more, to per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a group of man-made chemicals known as PFAS that have been linked to cancers, immune suppression and other serious health problems.
Although the presence of the chemicals has been known for years, an announcement last week from the Environmental Protection Agency for the first time promised regulatory action, a significant acknowledgment of the startling scope of the problem that drew outrage from veterans and others living in contaminated communities.
Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler said that the agency would begin the process of potentially limiting the presence of two of the compounds in drinking water, calling this a “pivotal moment in the history of the agency.”
The admission drew praise, but many said that it was not enough and that millions of people would keep ingesting the substances while a regulatory process plods along. “It should have been called an inaction plan,” said Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator appointed by President Barack Obama.
While the military has used the chemicals extensively, it is far from the only entity to do so, and in recent years, companies such as DuPont have come under fire for leaching PFAS into water systems.
All told, 10 million people could be drinking water laced with high levels of PFAS, according to Patrick Breysse, a top official at the federal Centers for Disease Control. Breysse has called the presence of the chemicals “one of the most seminal public health challenges” of the coming decades.
The residents of Fountain, a mountain-flanked suburb of Colorado Springs, were told of the contamination by local officials who had been required by the EPA to test the water for the substances, a step toward possible regulation. Soon, dozens of communities from New York to Washington state discovered their drinking water was polluted with PFAS.
Many people began demanding that state and military officials test their blood for the chemicals, hoping to learn the extent of their presence in their bodies.
The military has started an expensive cleanup effort that has involved shifting municipalities to new water sources and assessing toxic plumes that continue to spread for miles.
Maureen Sullivan, the military’s deputy assistant secretary for environment, said the government had moved “aggressively” to tackle the problem, assessing cleanup duties and looking for alternatives to the foam, a version of which the military still uses.
“I’m proud of what the Department of Defense has done in the past two-plus years,” she said.
But frustration persists. The military never alerted all of the people who drank polluted water, meaning some are in the dark. When asked how many people were affected by contamination, Sullivan said she “couldn’t hazard a guess.”
“We’re tracking water sources,” she said, “not people.”
Local and state governments have had to carve millions from their budgets to deal with the problem, much of which may never be paid back. In places like Oscoda, Michigan, where the lake froths with toxic foam, residents are fighting with defense officials over the extent to which the military must clean up the mess.
“When I was in the Air Force, they preached all the time: ‘Do the right thing. Integrity first. Service before self. Excellence in all we do’,” said Aaron Weed, a 22-year veteran who is Oscoda’s town supervisor. “This is not the Air Force that I was a part of,” he continued. “The side of the Air Force that I am seeing is just disgraceful.”
Blood testing has emerged as a sticking point. Specifically, a growing movement of veterans and others, united in advocacy groups with names like Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition and Need Our Water, are asking the military test their blood for the chemicals, hoping to bring results to their doctors or use them in lawsuits.
Their requests have been denied, and the military says that too little is known about the substances to make the results useful. Instead, it will pay for the CDC to start yearslong population-based health studies in some communities.
“They don’t want to know,” said Cindi Ashbeck, 56, a veteran who worked out of Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Michigan. “It’s not being addressed, because you open that can of worms, and you’ve got an Agent Orange thing on your hands.”
PFAS are a broad class of chemicals developed in the 1940s. Because they repel grease and water, they have been used across industries for decades, often to prevent stains. They are placed in a dizzying array of products: food packaging, nonstick pans, clothing, furniture. They are also used to extinguish fires where petroleum-based explosions pose a danger.
But the chemicals move quickly through the earth and into water, where they persist indefinitely. Some scientists have deemed them “forever chemicals,” and over the last two decades, a growing body of research has shown that the compounds meant to help us are likely hurting us.
Like many around the country, Samuel Fortune has joined one of several lawsuits against the companies that made the firefighting foam, including 3M and Tyco Fire Products. Others, including the city of Newburgh, New York, are suing the military directly.
But the lawyer in the Colorado case, David McDivitt, said he thought that would be too difficult because “it’s tough to sue the federal government.”
For years, there were signs that the chemicals in the military’s firefighting foam were dangerous. Defense Department studies dating to the 1970s indicated that the substances were harmful to laboratory animals, according to an investigation by The Colorado Springs Gazette, and the Army Corps of Engineers told Fort Carson to stop using the foam in 1991, calling it “harmful to the environment.”
Industry officials have said they are following EPA rules, while the EPA has said it is exploring regulation.
“You know the Shaggy song, ‘It wasn’t me’?'” McDivitt said. “It’s like that.”