Ensuring health care for veterans exposed to PFAS

More than 10 percent of Alaska’s adult population are military veterans, many of whom live with a military service-related disability due to toxic exposure, such as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). However, the Dept. of Veterans Affairs does not recognize a disease developed during service on a military site with known PFAS contamination as a presumptively service-related disability. The VET PFAS ACT of July 2023 aims to assure medical care to ill veterans and their dependents exposed to PFAS by sparing them from unnecessary bureaucratic hassles.

The "forever chemicals”

PFAS are toxic substances found in various consumer and industrial products, such as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), a firefighting foam designed in 1967 to prevent flammable liquid fires. PFAS's widespread occurrence, persistence in the environment, and association with severe diseases and many types of cancers have made it one of the most feared chemicals of the past decade.

Because AFFF contains high levels of PFAS, military firefighters and veterans who have been regularly working with it are the most vulnerable group to the threats of the "forever chemicals." Numerous medical studies demonstrate that years of exposure leads to cancers. For example, a recent study focusing on U.S. Air Force Servicemen found a connection between PFAS levels in their bodies and testicular cancer.

However, everyone stationed at a military installation where large quantities of AFFF were released into the soil and groundwater ended up consuming contaminated drinking water, and thus, many got sick.

Alaska has at least nine military bases where worryingly high levels of PFAS, exceeding the safe exposure limit of 4 parts per trillion, were detected. Among those bases are Galena Air Force Base (257,710 ppt), Eareckson AFB (10,320 ppt), King Salmon (96,340 ppt), and Eielson AFB (334,200 ppt).

Veterans deserve more care   

Ill veterans filing a military base toxic exposure claim need to prove with medical evidence that their condition evolved during the years they served. However, in many cases, such evidence is impossible to get. Even with medical papers, the application is a lengthy bureaucratic procedure, and not all PFAS-related illnesses are considered for disability payments.

If voted to become law, the VET PFAS Act would not only assure that veterans receive the medical care they so much deserve but also bring justice to victims of irresponsible policy management and unethical commercial practices.

Jonathan Sharp is the Chief Financial Officer at the Environmental Litigation Group, PC. The law firm, headquartered in Birmingham, AL, assists civilian and military firefighters exposed to toxic chemicals.