This Year’s Defense Bill Has Important Public Health Protections

All told, this year’s defense bill represents significant progress towards protecting human health against PFAS, dangerous air pollution, lead poisoning and climate change. Yet more work remains.

Congress has reached an agreement on the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 (NDAA), after a tense year of negotiation. The final bill will, we believe, deliver substantial public health benefits. It does not include every measure we will ultimately need and several key policies were not included (listing PFAS under Superfund and the Clean Water Act, for example); the bill is not a silver bullet that will solve the whole PFAS crisis. Still, we can’t name another bill with an immediate chance of passing that delivers greater benefits across such a broad range of issues. Unfortunately, these significant accomplishments haven’t yet garnered the attention they deserve, as reports on the bill tend to focus on what isn’t included. To help balance the discussion, we have inventoried some of the bill’s helpful provisions on PFAS, lead poisoning, climate resilience and toxic air emissions. This blog is not yet an exhaustive list and will be updated as we spend more time reviewing the bill.

Much of this year’s news coverage about the NDAA’s environmental provisions centered on PFAS contamination for good reason.  These highly toxic “forever chemicals” are found in common items—everything from waterproof clothing to nonstick cookware and upholstery coatings. The Department of Defense (DoD) is a very significant source of industrial scale contamination because it uses firefighting foams that contain PFAS. Once released, these chemicals move quickly through waterways and drinking water supplies. PFAS chemicals don’t break down in the environment—giving rise to their “forever chemicals” moniker—and are linked to a number of adverse health outcomes like cancer, developmental and reproductive harm, hormone disruption and immune system problems. The NDAA contains important provisions addressing PFAS contamination within the boundaries of its jurisdiction and additional items that were agreed to by other committees of jurisdiction. These include:

  • Prohibiting DoD from the use of PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foams during training exercises at military installations
  • Requiring DoD to phase out the use of PFAS-containing aqueous film forming foams at military installations by 2024 (with tightly-limited extensions totaling up to 2 years). It is difficult to overstate the importance of this provision. PFAS containing firefighting foams have caused industrial scale contamination across the nation and this provision will get DoD to adopt PFAS-free alternatives that have been shown to be effective
  • Adding a significant group of PFAS chemicals to the Toxic Release Inventory, which will expand public knowledge of what is being released into the environment. This provision also includes a rulemaking requirement that mandates a future decision on whether to add more PFAS to the Inventory
  • Adding PFAS to the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule system, which will require widespread nationwide monitoring of tap water for PFAS contamination. This will allow people to know whether there is PFAS in their drinking water. (This provision applies to all larger water systems serving more than 10,000 people; smaller systems will be monitored depending largely upon congressional appropriations)
  • Requiring PFAS manufacturers to share information about where PFAS chemicals were previously manufactured and sold under Section 8(a) of the Toxic Substances Control Act
  • Requiring EPA to finalize its 2015 proposed Significant New Use Rule on long-chain PFAS chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act, which would require manufacturers and importers to submit notice to the EPA 90 days before manufacturing or using PFOA and certain related PFAS in products, thus allowing EPA to assess the risks associated with its use and to regulate the proposed activity before it occurs
  • Requiring DoD to enter into cooperative agreements with communities for testing, monitoring, and clean-up of PFAS where DOD has contaminated the environment. This will help to provide certain impacted communities with some needed assistance, though key details about how this will work remain unclear
  • Helping communities recover from contamination by allowing the Air Force to procure land contaminated by PFOS or PFOA and to assist affected people with relocation
  • Requiring DoD to submit to Congress a remediation plan for cleanup of water that is contaminated with PFOA and PFOS and is adjacent to a military installation
  • Phasing out the use of PFAS chemicals in meals-ready-to-eat (MRE) packaging. PFAS commonly enters the body through food consumption and this will protect the health and safety of military personnel
  • Allowing DoD to provide non-contaminated water for agricultural purposes where it has contaminated the existing water supplies above certain levels with PFOS or PFOA
  • Requiring the U.S. Geological Survey to do monitoring of surface and ground water, soils and wells and the creation of a detection standard for PFAS so that we have a better grasp on the location and severity of PFAS contamination
  • Requiring DoD to provide blood testing for military firefighters during annual physical exams to better determine and document their exposure to PFAS
  • Continuing to fund a national study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that will inform communities about their levels of exposure to PFAS and develop a better understanding of the human health effects associated with PFAS exposure
  • Providing authorization for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to provide grants to address PFAS that will help disadvantaged and small communities remediate contamination
  • Ensuring that incineration of PFAS containing firefighting foams complies with Clean Air Act requirements and that disposal is handled as appropriately as possible 

The bill also contains several measures to reduce exposure and harm inflicted by open air burn pits. The Defense Department uses burn pits to incinerate waste where a waste disposal infrastructure does not exist. The air pollution associated with burn pits has been linked to Parkinson's disease and other serious health problems. This year’s NDAA addresses open-air burn pits by:

  • Requiring DoD to share a list of where open-air burn pits have been used with Congress and the Department of Veterans Affairs, which expands information for military service members and protects public health
  • Ensuring all DoD medical personnel have access to the Burn Pit Registry, fostering greater transparency about the health effects resulting from exposure to open air burn pits
  • Increasing information sharing by directing DoD to enter exposure data into the Burn Pit Registry
  • Requiring a plan to phase out the use of open-air burn pits
  • Adding an assessment of potential exposure to open-air burn pits to periodic physical examinations and health assessments for military service members to promote early diagnosis and intervention

The NDAA contains measures to address lead contamination. Lead is a potent neurotoxin. There is no safe level of exposure. It is especially toxic to children and developing brains.The NDAA addresses lead contamination by:

  • Requiring military healthcare providers to administer blood testing for children in military families to check for lead poisoning
  • Protecting military families by requiring DoD to report to Congress on the number of military installations with lead service lines connected to schools, childcare centers, and other facilities. The report requires an assessment of the number of individuals potentially affected and recommendations for legislative action to address the replacement of lead service lines at those installations.

Climate change is a recognized national security threat multiplier for many reasons. One reason is that it places our military infrastructure at greater risk from flood inundation and extreme weather events. Recognizing this, the NDAA makes our military more climate-resilient by:

  • Ensuring the DoD is capable of adapting to the impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise, drought, and more intense storms, by directing the DoD to identify and seek to remove barriers that hinder it from being resilient to those impacts
  • Requiring dedicated funding for adaptation to and the mitigation of extreme weather events to minimize impacts to military readiness
  • Mandating that major military installations include in their master plans an assessment of the current and future risks those installations face due to extreme weather events, sea level rise, and flooding. In addition, the NDAA provides the authority to carry out projects to make existing major installations safer and stronger against those risks
  • Establishing that military building practices and standards incorporate assessments of current and future extreme weather events, and military infrastructure be designed accordingly
  • Safeguarding against the growing threat of sea level rise by directing the DoD to consider the impacts of current and future mean sea level fluctuation in the location and design over the lifetime of the proposed military infrastructure

All told, this year’s defense bill represents significant progress towards protecting human health against PFAS, dangerous air pollution, lead poisoning and climate change. Yet more work remains. The House, for instance, has passed strong measures through committee that would add PFAS to the federal Superfund law and set a health protective drinking water standard. That standard would protect fetuses and infants who drink more fluid per unit of body weight than adults and are likely more vulnerable to the effects of PFAS. Just last May, in testimony before Congress, we described how lawmakers could address PFAS contamination, with additional details in this recent blog. The full House has passed a measure in its NDAA bill to regulate PFAS discharges under the Clean Water Act, an important step to addressing pollution of the nation’s waterways with PFAS, and Congress should act on this. Taking up these and other important provisions would build upon the substantial work accomplished in the NDAA.  We look forward to working with Congress to continue to strengthen protections against these “forever chemicals.”

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