Ms. Brockovich Goes To Washington
Plus: An Exclusive Interview With Kevin Ferrara, Retired Air Force Master Sergeant, "It came in contact with our hands and our faces, in our eyes and mouths, on our uniforms."
Today, I testified before Congress, specifically at a hearing on Remediation and Impact of PFAS in front of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction, Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies.
As I said today and many of you may know, I’m a military mom. Two of my children served in the U.S. Army, and my son served a tour in Afghanistan. All Americans who serve give the ultimate sacrifice to protect and defend our country. They shouldn’t have to sacrifice their health years after their service is complete.
You can read my full testimony here.
More than 700 Department of Defense sites are likely to be contaminated with PFAS, according to data released by the Pentagon.
Tens of thousands of military men and women, firefighters, spouses, children, brothers and sisters, friends and family members write to me about these issues. And PFAS is just one contaminant of concern among many that our service members and surrounding communities have been exposed to.
We will continue to cover these stories, but today I want to introduce you to someone who was bumped from the panel and really wanted an opportunity to speak before Congress.
Kevin Ferrara is a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and military firefighter, who continues to serve his community as a volunteer firefighter. He runs a small consulting business for fire and emergency services, often speaking about PFAS, a group of man-made chemicals that research and military documents show, was, and are hazardous and toxic.
Kevin had exposure to PFAS from years of direct and indirect contact with Aqueous Film Forming Foam, otherwise known as AFFF (many call it A-triple-F), a product used by military and civilian fire departments to fight flammable liquid fires like aircraft fuel.
He, and many of the friends and colleagues he served with, are sick.
In our conversation last week, he told me, “I have two men I’m in contact with daily. They can’t get any more radiation treatments; their cancers are terminal. I’ve got one paralyzed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, and he’s frustrated because every time he files a VA claim, they deny it. They say, “we can’t prove your cancer is associated with AFFF and PFAS,” despite his oncologist saying, “It’s a no brainer. He was exposed to it.”
In his planned testimony Kevin wrote, “None of us asked to be sick; we just wanted to serve our country, protect lives, and enjoy life afterwards.”
We interviewed him for The Brockovich Report so you could hear more of this veteran’s story.
A Conversation with Veteran Kevin Ferrara
Thanks so much for taking time to talk with us today.
Kevin: A lot of military firefighters have a story to tell, and it seems like many folks don’t want to listen, so thank you for being willing to listen to our stories.
Firefighters have been reaching out to me, saying we’re starting to hear about PFAS. What is it? Should I be concerned? I’ve been sick for so long. Is it because of exposure to AFFF?
And we’re finding out yes, yes, yes. It’s all associated with it.
And the scary part is when we talk to our doctors. I talked to my doctor and he said, “What the heck is PFAS?” I had to give him a briefing on it. And he said, “Yes, we have to monitor this.”
It almost seems like they [the Department of Defense (DoD)] are hoping the problem goes away.
When I say “the problem,” I don’t mean the PFAS, I mean the exposed victims. It’s just a matter of time… What about all of us who were exposed? Are they waiting for all of us to die off? I just want them to be upfront and honest with us. Just apologize and own it. Say, “We did this, we’re sorry, and we’re going to work with you to make change.” But we can’t get that.
Take us back to your story and how you were first exposed to AFFF and PFAS.
Kevin: The first time I enlisted in the Air Force was 1991, after basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, down in San Antonio. My duty assignment was a firefighter.
My technical training was at the Chanute Air Force Base [a now decommissioned facility, located in Champaign County, Illinois], at the DoD Fire Academy. I attended training in the summer of ’91 and during that training, one of the blocks (as we called it) was Aircraft Rescue Firefighting, which involved using firefighting foam to put out liquid petroleum fires, basically jet fuel or anything that would burn at that time.
The first time I ever came in contact with AFFF was during that training, and we were told from the very first time we came in contact with it that it was, “simply soap and water” and perfectly fine. It was safe to be around.
Being a 19-year-old and new to the military, I simply took those that said it at their word. They were the instructors. We did this training for about a week. We did multiple fires—some small, some extremely large.
When we were on the hose lines, we would be spraying foam, and the trucks behind us would be spraying it and it would rain down and completely saturate our firefighting gear. It came in contact with our hands and our faces. It got in our eyes and mouths. It got on our uniforms. Again, the whole time we were told that it was perfectly safe. Just wash your uniforms, and you’ll be fine.
Can you describe AFFF? What’s it smell like or look like?
Kevin: It has somewhat of a sweet smell to it. In its concentrated form, it has a yellow-ish color. It’s almost like a watery syrup. Once it hits the ground, it forms a thin layer and turns pure white. You know it’s a foam. If you did the same thing with a commercial dish soap, it would pretty much be the same, minus the big bubbles.
Surprisingly, a lot of us washed the trucks with it. Some folks washed their uniforms with it. We did fire prevention visits with kids and we would spray the foam and the kids would play in it. We were not aware that this stuff was toxic.
I look back now and think there is no way I would do that!
Tell us about your early assignments and how you interacted with AFFF.
Kevin: After training, my first assignment was at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, New Mexico. I was there from 1991-1995. We had two shifts and we worked 24 hours on and on 24 hours off. Every shift, if you were assigned to an aircraft rescue firefighting truck, we would go out and do our morning operational checks. During those checks, we were discharging the foam system on the truck to make sure it worked properly.
We would drive along the airfield, up and down the taxi ways and we would stop, activate the foam system, and discharge foam onto the grass area adjacent to the taxi ways. Sometimes, we went out to the fire training grounds and did the same thing. It was never contained.
If you’ve ever been to Clovis, it’s a lot of dirt and sand there. It’s high plains desert. We would discharge it, and it would just seep into the ground. We didn’t think anything of it.
Well, we did that the entire four years that I was assigned there. And unbeknownst to me, we were contaminating the groundwater and the soil. I later found out that all of the foam released got into aquifer, contaminated drinking wells and the water source for the base and for the city of Clovis.
Now there are dairy farmers and cattle farmers who can’t sell their milk or cows because of all that contamination.
But the entire time we were there, we were never told that firefighting foam is toxic, hazardous. No one said a word.
I left the military for six years and then I came back to serve in 2001. I was assigned to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and the same operational checks continued. Nothing changed in that six years when I was out. Once again, we were told that the foam is just soap and water. You can wash it down the drain if you need to. There’s nothing wrong with that.
When did you first get an inkling that the AFFF might be a little more than soap and water?
Kevin: After Davis-Monthan, I went to Germany. The local Germans are all about the environment. When they found out that we were discharging this foam, they came on the base and said, “Look you have to stop, it has to be contained. Even if just a small drop of this is left out or not contained, we need to know about it.”
So we started containing it. We still didn’t have any guidance from the Air Force on how to properly use it or contain it and clean it up. Nothing was said by the DoD or the Air Force.
What happened after Germany when you returned to the U.S.?
Kevin: In 2007, I went to Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. We were doing the same thing. I’ve learned through talking to other folks that the groundwater contamination on base is 2.2 million ppt for PFOA and PFOS.
When I first saw that number, I thought that’s gotta be a typo, there’s no way! The EPA’s health advisory is 70 ppt.
Sure enough, I contacted the Environmental Working Group, and they said that’s the number, it came from the DoD’s own testing reports.
Wait a second, I was there for 10 years, and the base never said anything to us about the groundwater contamination.
At every base I was assigned to the base commanders, Air Force leadership, DoD leadership, not once said, “Hey, there’s a likelihood that the groundwater and drinking water is contaminated because of firefighting foam. You should take precautions.”
Going back to Cannon Air Force Base, where I first started. We drank the tap water. We were contaminating the aquifers that pumped that same water into the base and we were drinking the contaminated water. We did the same thing at every other base.
Every Air Force installation I was assigned to, I’ve now learned has elevated levels of PFAS in the groundwater. Throughout my 20 years, I was drinking contaminated water.
And did you ever get any communication about the dangers of AFFF and PFAS?
Kevin: A few emails were sent out around 2011 or 2012, but I didn’t pay much attention to them. They talked about PCBs and something else. I was not familiar with it. My fire chief at the time didn’t get too involved.
But then in about 2015, we saw some emails come out about environmental concerns with AFFF, and that it may contain PFOA or PFOS. That was the first time I had seen those acronyms.
What do you think about surrounding communities near these sites?
Kevin: The bigger concern at Langley is that about half of the base is surrounded by water. The back river right off the shore line, on any given day, you can watch fisherman out there, dropping crab pots, fishing off the boat.
So that groundwater contamination blows into the back river. These fisherman collect crabs and other fish and bring it to local seafood market to sell it. How many innocent consumers ate contaminated seafood because of Langley Air Force Base?
What’s it been like learning about all of this pollution?
Kevin: I get so frustrated because I’ve had to do so much research on my own to find out what I know today.
I’ve learned that the Air Force has known since 1973 that AFFF is hazardous and toxic. In the 1980s, more Air Forces studies on lab animals found tumors associated with exposure.
Why hasn’t that information been conveyed to the service members working and living on bases?
With the firefighters I talk to, I provide them this information and they say: What the heck is this? Are you serious?
They’ve sent me test results from their blood word and ask what do these numbers mean? They seem high. They are high based on the research I’ve done. Obviously, you want your numbers as close to zero as possible, but it’s unrealistic. These numbers should not be where they are at.
They are telling me the DoD hasn’t identified a normal range. They don’t know what to do after the blood test, meaning there’s no medical guidance on those that have elevated levels of PFAS.
Do they stay as firefighters and continue to get exposed? Get cross-trained? Nobody has an answer. I’ve tried reaching out to the Air Force fire chief, he completely ignored me.
The damage I unknowingly created weighs heavily on my mind.
In my planned testimony for Congress I shared that, “Mr. Mark Correll, Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Environment, Safety and Infrastructure stated ‘If there’s something we could have done earlier, we would have loved to have known that. But we can’t take action on things we don’t know.”
The truth is the DoD kept a blind eye to the release of AFFF on and off military installations; failing to adequately protect lives and the environment. Doing such has led us here.
How’s your health and what steps are you taking for the future?
Kevin: My civilian doctors were unfamiliar with PFAS however, over the past two years, we uncovered through research, some of my medical conditions are associated with PFAS exposure.
When I came back to the Air Force in 2001, my triglycerides were, as my doctor said, “off the chart.” And then I find out high triglycerides are associated with elevated exposure to PFAS. I am a type 2 diabetic and I have high cholesterol, also associated with exposure to AFFF and PFAS. [He’s dealing with about 14 different medical conditions right now.]
Active military and DoD civilian firefighters are offered an annual PFAS blood test, thanks to a provision in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
They test for 6 PFAS chemicals. If the member doesn’t want a blood test, they have to sign a release and wait until their next physical to be offered that test again.
Those that participate are getting their numbers, but not learning what those numbers mean.
Next year, I think those numbers will go up. I don’t see them going down because these firefighters are still being exposed to AFFF. We now know PFAS is in firefighter turnout gear. They wear this gear on every call, so they can’t get away from it.
I get bombarded on social media and email with firefighters asking me questions. Can you help me decipher these blood test results? We have no idea what they mean. No one is telling us.
Former military firefighters like me are left out from this testing. The VA states, they do not recommend blood tests for PFAS however, such tests would allow healthcare physicians to detect signs of cancer or other medical conditions. It is not a matter of if, it is a matter of when; when will my body accelerate in terms of deteriorating due to AFFF and PFAS exposure? A blood test might tell.
Photos from Kirtland Air Force Base Facebook page.