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Understanding PFAS Exposure and Its Impact on Health

Understanding PFAS Exposure and Its Impact on Health

Americans are exposed to toxic chemicals at low levels for most of our lives. Research bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency set limits for what levels of toxic exposure are acceptable to the human body. However, some chemicals, like PFAS, are not fully understood by our governing bodies. Veterans in particular are still exposed to these chemicals at dangerous levels. The VA is making compensation available to veterans dealing with health effects from PFAS exposure. 

What is PFAS?

PFAS stands for both perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances. These are groups of chemicals used in fire suppression agents and other substances.

Two PFAS—perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS)—were used in the production of the fire suppressant Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, or AFFF. The Department of Defense used AFFF as a fire suppression agent and for training purposes at military installations in the 1970s. It was also used in machine shops. 

The DoD phased out the use of PFAS-based agents, but existing stock can still contain PFAS. AFFF is no longer used for maintenance, testing, or training, but is still used in emergency situations. However, the past use of these agents has resulted in long-term exposure to veterans through direct exposure and through contaminated drinking water. 

PFAS are sometimes referred to as “forever chemicals,” because they are not biodegradable. They will not naturally break down and must be disposed of properly. The human body cannot dispose of these chemicals, so they stay in the bloodstream and cause health problems. The DoD is currently performing environmental research to find PFA-free AFFF formulas and to treat soil contaminated with PFAS. 

Delayed Health Effects and Compensation

Exposure-related illnesses are difficult to prevent because health effects from exposure can take decades to develop, in some cases. Additionally, we may not know about the harmfulness of certain substances until a large number of people have already been exposed. 

For example, the DoD began surveying environmental damage from nuclear fallout in the 1970s after many groups of service members had already been exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation. 

Another example is the widespread health effects on servicemembers who drank contaminated water at Camp Lejeune. Unfortunately, some dangerous chemicals are only identified after a pattern of illness is observed in servicemembers who live in close proximity or who have similar roles. By that time, the damage is done. 

Claims for Service Connection

Congress and the VA are recognizing the tragic implications of delayed health effects due to ignorance of the danger of some toxic chemicals. Working together, the two bodies try to make proper compensation and treatment available to veterans who live in places where exposure is presumed, and have diseases linked to the substance at issue. For PFAS exposure in particular, representatives have introduced the VET PFAS Act to streamline the claims process for PFAS-exposed veterans. The Act has not been passed, yet.  

This scheme is known as “presumptive service connection.” It streamlines the compensation process so a veteran does not have to prove they were actually exposed to a toxic substance—only that they lived or worked in an area where the substance was known to be used at a given time. 

Additionally, only an intervening cause can prevent a veteran who lived at a known exposure site and who has a disease linked to the substance from receiving compensation and/or treatment. For example, if a veteran with lung cancer claimed their disease resulted from exposure to burn pits, but that veteran also smoked cigarettes for 30 years before their diagnosis, the VA may need to conduct additional investigation to determine whether the smoking caused the cancer instead of the burn pit exposure. Outside of clear intervening causes, the compensation process is relatively straightforward for veterans exposed to toxic substances. 

What does PFAS exposure do to your body?

PFAS exposure has been linked to cancer and reproductive and immune system disorders, among other diseases. It has also been linked to an increased risk of asthma, thyroid disease, and liver damage. Babies can be exposed to PFAS through their mothers before birth, and after birth through breast milk and formula mixed with contaminated water. 

PFAS Exposure Symptoms

There are thousands of types of PFAS with varying levels of toxicity. Research is ongoing regarding the health implications of exposure. The following are possible symptoms that can be linked to PFAS exposure

  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Changes in liver enzymes
  • Decreased vaccine response in children
  • Increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women
  • Small decreases in infant birth weights
  • Increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer 

Blood tests can tell you whether your blood contains PFAS, but are not able to predict future negative health effects. Most people will have safe levels of PFAS in their blood, so the VA does not recommend these tests to check for high levels of exposure. 

What military bases have PFAS-contaminated water?

The DoD is still conducting research into the existence of PFAS at its installations, but PFAS use was widespread. For instance, in California alone, 62 installations were believed to have been affected by the release of PFAS into the soil or water. Over 700 bases were included in a 2021 report as suspected contamination sites. 

Sites with known PFAS exposure where DoD has begun taking remedial action to clean up the groundwater include: 

  • Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington
  • Former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove in Pennsylvania
  • Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico
  • Horsham Air Guard Station in Pennsylvania
  • Fort Leavenworth in Kansas
  • Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey
  • Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton in California
  • Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio

Connect With Experienced Veterans Disability Attorneys

If you or a loved one are a veteran with a health condition you think may be linked to PFAS exposure, schedule a free consultation with a VA disability attorney today. Contact the Cameron Firm, PC at 800-861-7262 or fill out the contact box on our website. 

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