Tracking the PFAS Threat

Key Takeaways:

  • The city and residents of Newburgh, New York have known about PFAS contamination in their water since 2014 from Stewart Air National Guard Base among other potential sources, but are still waiting for a formal cleanup plan from various federal agencies.

  • In communities across the United States, PFAS contamination from Department of Defense (DoD) sites has been found at at least 126 bases or former bases and installations; the DoD says there are potentially 401 total sites where PFAS contamination may be present.

  • The DoD’s response to the crisis has varied from community to community, and a little less than half of the news coverage about the DoD’s response has been negative, while only about 20% of coverage has been positive.

Groundwater and surface water contamination from Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is emerging as a key threat to drinking water safety

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.

Although the PFAS contamination has been well documented, national news has been slow to report on the crisis. Only after May 2018, when the DoD addressed PFAS concerns at an EPA summit and the Trump administration attempted to quash an EPA report on PFAS, has the topic re-entered the national spotlight. (Data collected by Vector Center from April 2017 - September 2018; a less pronounced bump in coverage occurred in 2016)

Although the PFAS contamination has been well documented, national news has been slow to report on the crisis. Only after May 2018, when the DoD addressed PFAS concerns at an EPA summit and the Trump administration attempted to quash an EPA report on PFAS, has the topic re-entered the national spotlight. (Data collected by Vector Center from April 2017 – September 2018; a less pronounced bump in coverage occurred in 2016)

In communities like Newburgh, New York, PFAS was detected as early as 2014 in drinking water sources due in part to runoff from the Stewart Air National Guard Base, leading to the community declaring a state of emergency in 2016. But this state of emergency was quickly reversed by the City Manager Michael G. Ciaravino, leaving the community uncertain about the safety of their drinking water.

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.

In November 2018, the DoD sent a team to Newburgh to speak with local residents, directly addressing the community’s concerns for the first time. Their message was clear, “We want to get the water clean. And we’re here to do that,” John Henderson, assistant secretary of the Air Force for Installations, Environment and Energy told the attendees. But to local communities members their response was too little, too late.

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.

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.

PFAS water contamination is not well understood in all areas where the threat of contamination is high


By tracking local and national news around PFAS and PFAS related issues, divergence and convergence between the perception and reality of the PFAS threat begins to emerge. In some states, like California and Michigan, news coverage seems to align with the actual threat, but in other communities, like Alabama, Mississippi, and Maine, contamination goes under reported in the news cycle. (Data collected by Vector Center from June 2017 – September 2018. PFAS sites as of October 2018.

PFAS Facts, From Content Partner Circle of Blue:

  • Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of over 3,500 man made chemicals that were developed after the second World War. Since then, PFAS have been incorporated into a range of products: firefighting foam, non-stick skillets, water-repelling jackets, stain-resistant carpets, floor cleaners, waxes, paints, insect traps, and more.

  • Perfluorinated compounds, a subgroup of PFAS, are extremely persistent in the environment. They have been called “forever chemicals” because the carbon-fluorine bond that holds the molecules together is the strongest chemical bond. Additionally, some PFAS compounds, particularly perfluoroalkyl acids, are both mobile and bio-cumulative. This means they move quickly in groundwater, as well as build up in organisms faster than they are excreted.

  • In addition to industrial production facilities, contaminated sites in the U.S. include military bases, fire stations, landfills, hospitals, and schools. All of these large institutions use foams or waxes or cleaners that contain the chemicals.

  • The U.S. Department of Defense counts more than 400 active or closed bases with a known or suspected release of PFAS. The military has spent more than $210 million on cleanup so far.

  • In May 2016, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lowered its health advisory for two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, to 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. The health advisory is not binding, and some public health researchers argue that it ought to be even lower.