Residents Near 8 Military Bases to Be Tested for Chemical Tied to Cancer

A recent study has strengthened the link between the use of firefighting foam, seen above, and high levels of toxic chemicals found in water supplies near Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. (Ole-Gunnar/Getty Images)
A recent study has strengthened the link between the use of firefighting foam and high levels of toxic chemicals found in water supplies near Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. (Ole-Gunnar/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with the federal agency responsible for investigating environmental threats, will begin assessing residents near eight active and former military bases for exposure to chemicals found in firefighting foam and other products.

The CDC, along with the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), will check for exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, referred to as PFAS compounds, which have been linked to infertility, immune disorders, developmental delays in children and some cancers.

The compounds are found in nonstick pots and pans; water-repellent and stain-resistant fabrics; and products that repel grease, water and oil. But they are also found, concentrated, in the foam used on military bases and at airports for fighting aviation fires.

Research is ongoing into the public health consequences of PFAS compounds, but the Defense Department has identified 401 active and former bases where they are known to have been released into the environment.

Since 2015, the DoD has been testing drinking water systems both on and off bases for contamination. As of March 2018, the Pentagon had identified 36 sites that supply drinking water to installations that tested above the Environmental Protection Agency's accepted limits for PFAS contamination.

It also found 564 public or private drinking water systems off installations that tested above the EPA's accepted limits.

Related: Health Study Planned After Air Force Firefighting Foam Tainted Water

The DoD is currently working to determine whether area residents were exposed and, if so, to switch to a clean water source and initiate cleanup. The CDC and ATSDR, meanwhile, are studying the extent of exposure and plan to launch studies to understand the relationship between PFAS compounds and health conditions.

The eight communities the agencies will examine this year are: Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska; Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado; New Castle Air National Guard Base, Delaware; Barnes Air National Guard Base, Massachusetts; Stewart Air National Guard Base, New York; Reese Technology Center, Texas; Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington; and Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, West Virginia.

The investigations follow exposure assessments conducted in Bucks and Montgomery counties, Pennsylvania, near the former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove, and the Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton, N.Y.

CDC officials said the primary goal of the research is to "provide information to communities about levels of the contaminants in their bodies." This information will help the communities understand the extent of exposure, they added.

"The lessons learned can also be applied to communities facing similar PFAS drinking water exposures. This will serve as a foundation for future studies evaluating the impact of PFAS exposure on human health," said Patrick Breysse, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health and ATSDR.

In addition to the contamination of some base drinking water supply systems, DoD investigations found that the groundwater at some facilities contained PFAS compounds.

According to the DoD, as of August 2017, nine Army bases, 40 Navy and Marine Corps bases, 39 Air Force bases and two Defense Logistics Agency sites had groundwater levels of PFAS higher than EPA limits. The DoD tested a total of 2,668 groundwater wells for contamination, finding more than 60 percent above the EPA's accepted limit.

According to the CDC, the community assessments will include randomly selecting residents to provide blood and urine samples to check PFAS levels. The exposure assessments will use statistically based sampling.

In May 2018, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization that supports research and education on public health concerns related to environmental exposures, released an estimate that as many as 110 million Americans may have PFAS compounds in their drinking water.

A 2018 ATSDR draft toxicology report has associated PFAS compounds with ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and high blood pressure in pregnant women. In addition, the most commonly used PFAS compounds have been linked to testicular and kidney cancer.

The Air Force last year announced that it had completely transitioned its firefighting services to use foam considered safer to the environment than the original aqueous firefighting foam.

The Army also plans to replace its stockpiles and to incinerate the PFAS-containing foams.

In 2016, the Navy announced a policy to stop releasing foam at its shore facilities except in emergencies and had a plan to dispose of its excess foam. It also announced plans to dispose and replace all shore systems and fire trucks that use the PFAS-containing foam.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @patriciakime.

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