Blog: New Map Shows Location of Known or Suspected PFAS Contamination at Airports and Military Bases across Canada

New Map shows location of known or suspected PFAS contamination at airports and military bases across Canada. Questions raised about drinking water quality in nearby communities.

Guest blog post by Beverley Thorpe 

Today CELA released a map of Canadian military and airport sites that are known or suspected to be contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The data for the map was obtained in response to a petition filed by the Canadian Environmental Law Association, Citizens’ Network for Waste Management, Clean Production, Health and Environment and Justice Support, and NorthWatch on August 10, 2021, entitled “How protective and how transparent is the Canadian government response to the Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances Class of ‘Forever Chemicals’ in water, products, and waste?”. The map and accompanying tables are available to download here.

This map is part of CELA’s ongoing push for transparency and increased public awareness about PFAS in Canada including the location of communities most at risk from these chemicals due to ongoing use of PFAS or legacy contamination. The map does not include information about all privately operated airports.

Military bases and airports are a significant cause of water contamination because of the use of aqueous film-forming firefighting foams containing PFAS. Because PFAS are highly persistent and very mobile in water, these chemicals will contaminate nearby groundwater and drinking water.

The use of firefighting foam at military bases and airports is only one significant source of drinking water contamination by PFAS. Water can also be contaminated by PFAS in landfill leachate, and from paper mills, wastewater treatment works, land spread with sewage sludge, runoff from urban areas, industries that involve textile waterproofing, metal finishing and plating, carpet and furniture production, and more.

Credit:  North Carolina PFAS Testing Network

On Feb 10, 2023, Health Canada released its draft objective for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in Canadian drinking water. The current objective is an improvement on its previous water quality guidelines and has drastically lowered the recommended level of PFAS in drinking water from 1,000 parts per trillion (ppt) to 30 ppt. The current drinking water quality standards provide screening values for 9 PFAS. It should be noted that the class of PFAS includes more than 12000 PFAS chemicals.  Health Canada acknowledges that:

“Current data we have on PFAS in Canadian freshwater sources and drinking water are limited. The data we do have suggest that PFAS are present across Canada at levels generally below the proposed objective. [But] The concentrations of PFAS in freshwater and drinking water may be higher near: facilities that use large amounts of these chemicals, locations where fire-fighting foams containing PFAS were used to put out a fire, landfills, and wastewater treatment plants.”

The problem remains that Canadians who live near these sources of PFAS emissions do not know if their drinking water is contaminated.

A list of 42 sites contaminated by PFAS has now been listed on the Federal Contaminated Sites Inventory and can be accessed by doing a search for PFAS under the keyword function. This site information is provided by the Department of National Defence (DND) and Transport Canada, but it can be assumed this is an underrepresentation because other known causes of PFAS contamination, as noted by Health Canada, are not included in this inventory.  This underlines the need for site-specific information about PFAS contamination from landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and manufacturing facilities that use or release PFAS pollutants into the surrounding water.

What we do know is that almost all Canadians have PFAS in their bodies. Research constantly adds to our understanding of the known health impacts associated with exposure to PFAS. These impacts include: reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women; developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, and behavioral changes; increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers; reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response; and increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.

For the general public, the main sources of our exposure to PFAS come from drinking water and food. Direct exposure can also come via cosmetics, sprays, or dust from consumer products, but as the Guardian noted on Feb 23, 2023, most PFAS health scandals in the US and Europe have been related to contaminated drinking water supplies.  We can only solve PFAS pollution by banning the use of PFAS in all products and manufacturing facilities; setting strict drinking water standards and cleaning up legacy pollution.

In 2021, the Government of Canada announced they would address the broad class of PFAS chemicals and release a State of PFAS Report in 2023. The Department of National Defence has created a task force to find fluorine-free foams that meet industry standards and will be developing a project plan to eliminate PFAS Class B foam at DND locations, also by 2023.

Recently, on Feb 7, 2023, the European Chemicals Agency published a PFAS Restriction Proposal which lays the roadmap for banning all uses of PFAS in commerce.  So things are moving forward now that the international community has woken up to the extent of pollution from these ‘forever chemicals’.

While we wait for the Canadian government to publish its State of PFAS Report (which will hopefully include proposed actions that follow the strong lead of the European Chemicals Agency), and while we wait for Health Canada’s Draft Objective for PFAS in Canadian drinking water to go through the review process (which then needs to get implemented through provincial regulations), Canadians need to get proactive to ensure that their source of drinking water is safe from PFAS contamination

  • Ask your local public authority for monitoring data on PFAS in your drinking water, particularly if you live near one of the contamination sites on the map. If they have not monitored for PFAS in your drinking water ask them to make this a priority and make the results public. If military bases or federally run airports are the sources of PFAS in your drinking water, you need to know that the federal government promotes the “polluter pays” principle in various policies including the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which states that “Companies or people that pollute should pay the costs they impose on society.” You can view The Action Plan for Contaminated Sites by doing a search for ‘PFAS’ in the search option to view how 22 sites contaminated by PFAS are scheduled for cleanup. In the meantime, ask what the public health authority will do to filter your water. There are water filter systems available that can remove most PFAS. If you wish to pay for your own PFAS testing, Public Health Ontario provides a list of laboratories.
  • Contact your Provincial Member of Parliament to make PFAS a priority issue and find out how your province is engaged with the Federal review of Health Canada’s Draft objective for PFAS in Canadian drinking water, and how quickly your province will adopt Drinking Water Quality Standards for PFAS under O.Reg 169/03.
  • Contact your Federal Member of Parliament to make PFAS a priority issue and ensure that the soon-to-be-released PFAS Action Plan is as protective as the actions proposed by the European Chemicals Agency.

For more resources download the CELA Resource Kit on PFAS and other factsheets