High levels of contaminants from a firefighting foam that was used for decades at Fentress Naval Auxiliary Landing Field were found in its well water during a recent laboratory test, leading Navy officials Wednesday to tell workers to drink only bottled water until a permanent solution is available.
It's unclear how much of a health risk the contaminants pose, although some studies have indicated there's an elevated risk for cancer in animals and damage to human liver cells and an association with thyroid disease. Other studies have shown exposure may cause elevated cholesterol levels and low birth weight in humans.
The Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate perfluorinated compounds, the contaminants, but it considers them an "emerging contaminant" that could threaten health or the environment. The EPA is studying the contaminants to figure out whether regulations for acceptable levels are needed. The man-made chemicals are readily absorbed after oral exposure and accumulate primarily in the serum, kidney and liver, according to an EPA fact sheet.
"Right now, the health effects are completely unknown," said Liz Nashold, regional environmental director for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic.
Fentress is the only Navy installation in Hampton Roads with well water that used the firefighting foam, Nashold said. A water sample was sent to a laboratory Dec. 30 to test for the compounds as Navy officials began testing sites that may have been affected. The EPA requires monitoring for emerging contaminants only for water systems that serve more than 10,000 people. Laboratories only recently were able to analyze samples for the contaminants, according to the Navy.
"We've gone above and beyond any requirements, any state and federal requirements, because we want to make sure we have high-quality drinking water for the sailors and civilians that are on Fentress Air Field," Nashold said.
About 50 people work at Fentress, in rural eastern Chesapeake near the Virginia Beach line. It's used by Navy pilots in Virginia Beach and Norfolk to practice aircraft carrier landings and does not have any homes on site.
Navy officials said they'll work with their local, state and federal counterparts in the coming weeks to determine whether wells in nearby residential areas are affected. Restoration of the groundwater will be addressed by the Navy Environmental Cleanup Program.
The Navy has indicated it plans to test groundwater in areas within a half-mile of Fentress, according to a statement from Chesapeake officials.
"It is important to note that the concerns about (the contaminants) relate only to water drawn from wells, and not for the municipal water system of the City of Chesapeake," the statement says.
Virginia doesn't have any standards for acceptable levels of the compounds in drinking water, but Minnesota and New Jersey do.
Until a federal determination is made, the EPA has issued a provisional health advisory that sets levels for when exposure to the compounds should be reduced.
One of the compounds found at Fentress -- perfluorooctane sulfonate -- was five times the EPA advisory level of 0.2 micrograms per liter. The other compound -- perfluorooctanoic acid -- was more than four times the advisory level of 0.4 micrograms per liter.
The compounds are commonly found in paints, fabric, carpets, nonstick cookware, floor wax and food packaging, among other things. They also are found in the foam used by the Navy to fight fires involving fuel and oil, Oceana Naval Air Station commanding officer Capt. Louis Schager said. Schager, who oversees Fentress, said the foam was used during routine training at the site from the 1950s to the 1980s but now is used only during actual fires.
"We don't do that kind of training anymore," he said.
The primary manufacturer of one of the contaminants, 3M , completed a voluntary phase-out of its production of the compound in 2002.