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Activism Focus

From Germany to Japan to Philly’s Suburbs, Same Military Chemicals Poisoning Populations in over 20 Countries

Hal Conte March 13, 2019

What connects southwestern Germany, central Japan and 22 suburbs surrounding Temple University?

Activists in all three, along with homeowners, conservationists and public opinion at large are increasingly outraged over massive contamination of drinking water by Per and Poly Fluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS). And all of these chemicals come from the same source: the U.S. Air Force.

Since at least the early 1970s, the Air Force has deployed firefighting foams containing PFAS to ensure that billion-dollar military hardware is not damaged by potential blaze. But what wipes out fire does worse to water.

PFAS chemicals are linked to fertility problems, liver damage, cholesterol and other major health problems, whose effects have been observed since the 1970s on what corporate executives at the time called “uncivilized areas” in the Global South, according to an investigation by the Intercept.

“Among all contaminantes, PFAS is the most dangerous,” said Pat Elder, a member of the coordinating committee of World Beyond War, an activist NGO who has tracked communities’ responses to PFAS chemicals around the world. “When it goes into the sewers, you’re left with sludge. Since it’s is laced with carcinogens, it is going to kill all the birds and fish on the fields. They have to incinerate it. That isn’t good. You don’t want to burn the stuff, but there’s no other way to get rid of it.”

“The two worst ones, PFOS and PFOA, they are part of the giant family of PFAS. They aren’t used any more, but the military simply substituted others that are still carcinogenic,” he added.

But until now, the EPA has never considered regulating these chemicals for one simple reason: “The military has billions if not trillions in liability. They see how the military is so vulnerable to this,” Elder said.

According to Elder, “every U.S. base” uses these chemicals. Currently, 20 countries in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, including South Korea, Japan, NATO members Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, the U.K., Hungary, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Turkey, Italy, as well as the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Bahrain, Oman and Kyrgyzstan, have U.S. Air Force bases. This total does not include other types of U.S. bases or countries which used to host Air Force bases until recently, such as Iceland.

Increasing awareness of the problems has led to protests and outrage particularly in Germany where thousands of demonstrators have called for the US-NATO Ramstein Air Base to be closed down, and in Japan, where voters elected an outsider candidate calling for the Okinawa air base to be closed down.

German residents “tried to sue the U.S. military but couldn’t because of the SOFA Agreement, now they’re suing the German government,” Elder said.

Currently, PFAS chemicals are illegal under EU rules, however, the U.S. military has not dealt with the problem. Asked for an explanation on this, Elder said, “I’ve had that same discussion with German Green and European Parliament members, they say they have the right to subject the U.S. to European regulations, but I don’t know. The U.S. is a great and powerful empire.”

In suburbs just 16 miles from Temple’s main campus, Bucks County’s Green Party has held meetings on the topic with national experts and has called for “health-protective PFAS drinking water standards, the remediating of current sites, immediate provision of safe water for those affected and recovering costs from PFAS polluters, primarily the military,” according to a statement to Freely Magazine.

“We are aware that since 2014 nearly half the public drinking wells and scores of private wells in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington have been shut down, and that the scale of the public health crisis is only beginning to become apparent.  An estimated 80,000 individuals in the area are at risk.”

In recent weeks, newly installed EPA chief Andrew Wheeler has revealed an “action plan” on PFAS in Philadelphia which is supposed to address the problem nationwide, but has run into major opposition due to a lack of binding commitments. The plan will not involve cleanup of any existing sites and only targets certain chemicals in the PFAS family. Wheeler’s stance on PFAS has led to criticism even from State Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick.

Nowhere on the EPA’s agenda, however, is undoing the parallel damage done overseas.

“When I read stuff like that, it’s upsetting to my soul,” Elder sighed.