PFAS Contaminates Groundwater Near NY Incineration Facility


Anales Dyjak, M.A.  |  Policy Nerd

A new study out of Bennington College has shed light on new challenges as the federal government tries to figure out how to address PFAS contamination. PFAS, or "forever chemicals," are being found in tap water across the country. PFAS are known to cause a variety of health issues, including cancer and and an increased risk of miscarriages. PFAS compounds are a key ingredient in Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam or AFFF. All of these terms are used interchangeably in the media, including "forever chemicals" so we wanted to make to clarify.

Department of Defense and PFAS:

The Department of Defense has been responsible for deploying a significant amount of PFAS contamination into the environment. This is in part due to its presence in firefighting foam (AFFF), which is often used during on-base activities. Because there is no comparable alternative, the use of PFAS-containing AFFF is necessary for fire suppression. At the time PFAS and AFFF were first invented, sufficient predictive health modeling and epidemiology did not exist. Department of Defense must also consider a second issue, which is the impacts to on-base drinking water supplies. Military bases have their own water supply that’s separate from nearby municipalities. This means that DoD is responsible for determining the safety of the water being distributed to military personnel and their families. DoD has identified over 400 U.S. military bases whose water supply is contaminated with PFAS. 

How Do We Get Rid of PFAS in the Environment?

There is no current "best practice" for PFAS mitigation and the government has yet to figure out how to properly dispose of PFAS chemicals. In a 2017 SBIR solicitation, the Department of Defense acknowledged that “no satisfactory disposal method has been identified” and “many likely byproducts will be environmentally unsatisfactory.” Despite both of these claims, the DoD entered contracts with incineration facilities in Ohio, Arkansas, New York, and more.

Public Health Crisis in Cohoes, New York

In 2018, the Norlite incineration facility in Cohoes, New York began burning AFFF from a contract with DoD. Residents of Cohoes were not made aware that the Norlite facility was burning AFFF until February 2020. Research out of Bennington College determined that because PFAS were being detected downwind of the Norlite plant, that the chemicals were not being fully incinerated. The researchers believe that this could be because the PFAS from DoD were used as a fire suppressant, making it unlikely that they would break down via incineration. The city of Cohoes is currently trying to pass a one-year moratorium on PFAS incineration so that further studies can be completed on impacts surrounding communities. 

What Are PFAS?

PFAS have historically been used in firefighting foam, non-stick and stain resistant surfaces, and Teflon. PFAS use a carbon-fluorine bond, which is one of the strongest chemical bonds and extremely difficult to break down in the environment. There are a variety of health impacts associated with exposure to PFAS including; cancer, low infant birth weight, thyroid problems, and effects on the immune system. A recent study out of Yale University School of Public Health found that PFAS exposure increases the risk of miscarriages in pregnant women by 80-120%

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