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Tracking the PFAS Threat

The Department of Defense address the residents of Newburgh, New York. Photo by Cody Pope/Vector Center

Across the United States, a seemingly slow moving water contamination crisis is emerging. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) widely used in manufacturing for their “non-stick” properties and by the military and aviation sectors for their fire-fighting abilities have been building up in the nation’s water supplies.

While their usage has slowed in recent years, after an EPA health advisory back in 2016, these persistent chemicals remain in water sources, and are particularly prevalent around military and air force bases where firefighting drills were common.

Since, the DoD response has been slow moving, leaving communities like Newburgh uncertain how to proceed, and it is often unclear just how safe or unsafe their drinking water is.

A little less than half of the coverage about the DoD’s response to PFAS contamination can be categorized as negative, while only about 20% of coverage is positive. This negative sentiment carries over to in-person interactions with the DoD, like at the town hall in Newburgh.

In a dramatic moment, thirteen year Newburgh resident Beatrice Harris described the health problems her and her partner have suffered, she believes in part due to chemicals from the military base. “I had faith in the federal government once upon a time. It’s gonna take a hole lot more than shiny promises to fix that damage,” she told the DoD representatives.

This loss of faith in both the DoD and the Federal Government concerning water safety and the protection of the communities where the military operates, will have long term consequences for both current clean up efforts and future collaborations between the military and local municipalities.

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