Centurial Persistence of Forever Chemicals at Military Fire Training Sites
By Bridger J. Ruyle, Colin P. Thackray, Craig M. Butt, Denis R. LeBlanc, Andrea K. Tokranov, Chad D. Vecitis, and Elsie M. Sunderland
May 15, 2023
Drinking water contamination by per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is widespread near more than 300 United States (U.S.) military bases that used aqueous film-forming foams (AFFF) for fire training and firefighting activities. Much of the PFAS at these sites consist of precursors that can transform into terminal compounds of known health concern but are omitted from standard analytical methods. Here, we estimate the expected duration and contribution of precursor biotransformation to groundwater PFAS contamination at an AFFF-contaminated military base on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, United States, by optimizing a geochemical box model using measured PFAS concentrations from a multidecadal time series of groundwater and a soil survey in the source zone. A toolbox of analytical techniques used to reconstruct the mass budget of PFAS showed that precursors accounted for 46 ± 8% of the extractable organofluorine (a proxy for total PFAS) across years. Terminal PFAS still exceed regulatory limits by 2000-fold decades after AFFF use ceased. Measurements and numerical modeling show that sulfonamido precursors are retained in the vadose zone and their slow biotransformation into perfluoroalkyl sulfonates (half-life > 66 yr) sustains groundwater concentrations of perfluorobutane sulfonate (PFBS) and perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS). The estimated PFAS reservoir in the vadose zone and modeled flux into groundwater suggest PFAS contamination above regulatory guidelines will persist for centuries without remediation.