Four new studies issued by different teams of scientists on Aug. 9 cast new light upon the perfluorinated chemicals (PFAs) that have contaminated wells and water systems in the Fountain Valley. One study confirms that such contamination nationwide comes from three different sources; industrial operations, firefighting exercises and wastewater treatment plants.
The study also suggests that local contamination is too extensive to have been exclusively generated by firefighting exercises at Peterson Air Force Base. Two others confirm both the toxicity of PFAs and, more alarmingly, establish a clear link between PFA levels in women’s blood and ingestion of contaminated drinking water. The fourth study more firmly establishes links between PFAs and reduced immune response.
First created by 3M in the late 1940s, PFAs have been used in firefighting foams and in the manufacture of Teflon, Scotchgard and other industrial products. The chemicals are extraordinarily persistent in the environment, so much so that PFAs are present in the blood of Laysan albatrosses and almost all humans. The compounds neither break down nor degrade naturally, and pass undetected through water and wastewater treatment systems.
Although industrial use of these compounds has been curtailed, 2014 Environmental Protection Agency testing of municipal water systems serving at least 10,000 residential customers revealed that 6.5 million Americans in 27 states are exposed to PFA-tainted drinking water. The chemicals were detected in 94 public water systems — including the three El Paso County systems.
And that may severely understate the problem. The EPA didn’t test smaller systems, nor did it test private wells, which together supply drinking water to approximately 100 million Americans.
In a paper titled “Preliminary Associations Between the Detection of Perfluoroalkyl Acids [PFAAs] in Drinking Water and Serum Concentrations in a Sample of California Women,” 12 authors, led by Myrto Petreas of the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, tested the blood of 1,566 women.
“Median serum concentrations of PFOS and PFOA,” the report concluded, “were 29 percent and 38 percent higher, respectively, among those with detectable levels in water compared to those without detectable levels.”
Previous studies have linked PFCs to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, obesity, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disruption, lower birth weight and size, liver malfunction and hormonal disorders.
A fourth study published in Environmental Health Perspectives by Dr. Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health, connects early life exposure to perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) to “reduced immune responses that persist into adolescence. In addition, a study in the same population found that mothers with higher exposure to these substances were capable of breastfeeding their children a shorter time, perhaps due to adverse hormonal effects.
“The EPA advisory limit for PFOA and PFOS is much too high to protect against toxic effects on the immune system,” said Grandjean. “And the available water data only reveals the tip of an iceberg of contaminated drinking water. Our research has documented harm to the human immune system from these substances at levels much below those that were detectable in the [EPA] data base and even more water supplies are likely to be contaminated at these low levels.”
On Jan. 14, the Business Journal reported that drinking water from providers serving 80,000 residents of Security, Widefield and Fountain was contaminated with perfluoroalkyls, including PFOA, PFOS and four other long-chain PFAs. These industrial chemicals are characterized as “reportable non-regulated contaminants” by the EPA. In 2009, EPA established a provisional health advisory level of 400 parts per trillion, which applied only to levels of two long-chain PFAs, PFOS and PFOA.
EPA data suggested that PFAs were present throughout the Widefield aquifer, which all three water systems tap into. Officials at the three water systems insisted that the chemicals posed no danger to public health.
Fountain Valley residents were nevertheless concerned, and that concern intensified when EPA announced a new lower health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for the combined levels of PFOS and PFOA. This change had the effect of forcing the three water providers to find ways of either removing PFA-contaminated well water from their systems or diluting it with uncontaminated surface water and thereby reducing concentrations to levels below the EPA advisory.
It now seems clear that much, if not all, of the contamination was caused by the use of PFA-laced aqueous film forming foams (AFFFs) in firefighting exercises at Peterson Air Force Base.
AFFFs are widely used by civilian and military firefighters worldwide because they’re particularly effective in fighting hydrocarbon fires (e.g., gasoline, jet fuel, propane or diesel fuel). Synthetic surfactants such as PFOA and PFOS were key AFFF ingredients until a few years ago.
Civilian and military firefighters throughout the region trained frequently at Peterson, using AFFF to extinguish fires ignited in an unlined pit. Unaffected by fire, PFAs may have migrated into the aquifer.
“We don’t use AFFFs anymore in training,” said Peterson spokesperson Steve Brady. “We just use water, although we have foam here that we can use in a fire.”
“I’m so glad to hear that,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, a co-author of the source study. “Good for them! The chemical companies have been trying to persuade users that they can switch from long-chain PFAs to short-chains, but most of us believe that short-chain fluorinated chemicals may be just as toxic as long-chain.”
Asked whether Peterson still had stores of perfluorinated foam, Brady said that PAFB’s foam “is fully EPA compliant.”
While the Air Force hasn’t formally acknowledged responsibility for PFA contamination, it’s giving the water systems $4.3 million to help remediate the problem. There may be other causes as well. The source study notes anomalies in two studied areas.
“Geospatial data are lacking for many potentially important point sources of PFASs that could be included in a spatial analysis such as a wide range of industries, landfills, and municipal fire training areas,” the study says. “Areas with high model residuals (greater than 1.5 standard deviation) such as Colorado Springs, Colorado and Long Island, New York mean that current information on sources cannot fully explain the high observed PFAS concentrations.”
“There could be an industrial source,” said Blum, “or another firefighting facility, or a landfill or a wastewater treatment facility.”
The work, it seems, has barely begun.