WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will take the lead on improving access to medical care for military members exposed to potentially cancer-causing compounds during their service, Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters Wednesday.

In response to a question from McClatchy on the rising number of cancers in the military that could be connected to compounds service members were exposed to while deployed overseas or during training, Esper acknowledged the role of both the Pentagon and VA may grow.

“That is one of the areas where I want to improve and make sure we are doing everything we can to assist soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines as they transition out of the service into the VA system,” Esper said.

“VA has the lead on this,” he added.

Earlier this year, the military service organization TAPS said that the top cause driving new survivors to join its organization will soon be military member cancer deaths. TAPS, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, is a support organization for spouses and family members who have lost a service member.

The Pentagon will continue to take the lead on addressing the number of military bases and communities with ground and well water contaminated by per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) compounds, which are cancer-linked chemicals found in the military’s firefighting foam.

There’s already some momentum within the Pentagon and Congress to address the impact of Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF), which has been used since the 1970s to fight aircraft fires. The foam has concentrated amounts of PFAS compounds that are linked to cancers and birth defects. The compounds are found in everyday household products, but are concentrated in firefighting foam.

Over the past few decades, PFAS has seeped into groundwater and drinking well sources on military bases and the communities surrounding them. A number of cities are now calling on the Defense Department to clean up the contamination, citing rising numbers of cancers in their communities.

As the health risks have become more widely known, the services said they have backed off using the AFFF in training. For example, the Air Force now uses Phos-Chek 3 in training, which is a substitute foam that has lower levels of the compound.

The Marine Corps guidance now “is to use aqueous film forming foam (AFFF) for emergency firefighting only (i.e., no testing using AFFF) and minimizing releases to the environment where AFFF is required to be used,” said Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Joseph Butterfield.

The Navy “has ceased using AFFF for training purposes and has reserved the use of AFFF to rapidly extinguish Class B fires,” said spokesman Lt. Tim Pietrack.

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