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Military investigators make disturbing discovery at O'Hare and Midway airports: 'It's there forever'

The DOD said it is "committed" to correcting the situation, though it did not mention a timeframe.

The DOD said it is “committed" to correcting the situation, though it did not mention a timeframe.

Photo Credit: iStock

The foam used to extinguish fires at two Chicago airports has contaminated local groundwater with "forever chemicals" linked to major health concerns such as cancer.

What happened?

For years, Chicago and military firefighters used a firefighting foam known as AFFF, which contains toxic "forever chemicals" known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, Inside Climate News reported

The foam was used by Chicago Fire Department stations at O'Hare and Midway airports, and ample supplies were kept on site. According to a 2020 Air Force report, multiple spills occurred in the 1990s.

Though the foam is being phased out, it already has contaminated groundwater beneath both airports. While an initial survey found that suburban drinking water wells within a mile of the airport were not immediately threatened, experts said the chemicals could be in the ground beneath homes and surrounding areas and in the sewer system.

"Once it gets into groundwater and [is] discharged, it's there forever," said Erik Olson, a senior strategist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, per Inside Climate News

Why is PFAS contamination concerning?

This toxic firefighting foam has been used at airports and military bases for about half a century because of its ability to extinguish intense jet fuel fires. A Department of Defense report found that at least 455 military bases are contaminated with PFAS and that 275 out of 295 checked had released the chemicals "in the proximity" of drinking water supplies, as summarized by The Guardian.

The use of PFAS is not limited to firefighting foam, however. These chemicals can be found in a number of everyday products, including nonstick pans, waterproof clothing, dental floss, and microwave popcorn bags. PFAS contamination also happens as a result of product manufacture, polluting our water, air, and land. 

PFAS are called forever chemicals because they can't break down effectively in the environment and can build up in our bodies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found PFAS in the blood of 97% of Americans. This is bad news because it has been linked to cancers, liver damage, low birth weights, high cholesterol, and other health problems, as Inside Climate News noted.

The chemicals can also be found in wildlife — a 2023 study spotted them in freshwater fish, which are already facing major threats to survival.

What's being done about PFAS contamination?

The DOD is leading a nationwide cleanup of PFAS and is examining the spread of chemicals in Chicago. U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois, is pushing for the Chicago cleanup as well as alternatives to these toxic foams. 

Plus, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul sued more than two dozen companies in early 2023 for making and selling the foam, Inside Climate News reported.

In its recent report on PFAS at military bases, the DOD said it is "committed to cleaning up our PFAS releases as quickly as possible," though it did not mention a timeframe.

According to Clean Water Action, there are some things you can do to protect yourself from these deadly chemicals, including ditching non-stick cookware, popping your own corn, and foregoing PFAS-coated dental floss.

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