Air Force firefighters put out a fire at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. The firefighting foam used by military personnel has been known to contain cancer-causing chemicals, which have leaked into local water supplies around the country. File Photo by Samuel King Jr./U.S. Air Force
Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Public water supplies around the country are increasing efforts to test for chemicals linked to cancer and other diseases after studies revealed millions of Americans may now be exposed to the toxins.
In Brevard County, Fla., groundwater testing this year near Patrick Air Force Base show high levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, two water-resistant chemicals that used to be found in firefighting foam, as well as a variety of household products, ranging from no-stick frying pans to carpet-cleaning agents, and even the film inside microwave popcorn bags. And according to reports, several young women have been diagnosed with different types of cancer in the immediate area within just a few years of each other.
The chemicals have been phased out since 2015 by major chemical companies like Dupont and 3M at the suggestion of the Environmental Protection Agency. But they were in common use since the 1950s and have since been found in water supplies across the country.
In March, the Department of Defense released a report that found several military installations around the country showed unsafe levels of PFOS and PFOA in local water supplies. The EPA currently marks the unsafe level to be above 70 parts per trillion, although some researchers believe that benchmark is too high and lower levels are still unsafe.
Nonetheless, the DoD found PFOS and PFOA levels around the Patrick Air Force Base up to 4.3 million parts per trillion -- well above the EPA's warning levels.
Nick Van Der Linden, the interim communications director for the Florida Department of Health, said further testing has been done and an analysis is being performed by researchers at the Florida Cancer Registry.
"It is the goal of the department to conduct as thorough an investigation as possible, and no shortcuts will be taken in the data collection or verification process," Van Der Linden said in a statement. "The health and safety of Floridians is our top priority. Once the analysis is complete, it will be shared with the public."
But the PFOS and PFOA contamination issue is hardly unique to Florida or military installations. The chemical -- which cannot be destroyed by boiling water, is considered "bio-permanent," meaning it doesn't break down naturally and, once in the human body, remains there forever, building up over time the more an individual ingests it -- is being investigated by local water treatment utilities around the country.
"This is a very substantial public health risk," said Philippe Grandjean, a professor of environmental health at Harvard University who has conducted research on PFOS and PFOA. "It's a national problem. This contamination has been found in most, if not every single state. It's not a local problem."
How much PFOS and PFOA is in U.S. drinking water is not known because the EPA only has data on about half of the water supply. But with known data, an estimated 5 to 6 million people are known to be exposed to unsafe levels of PFOS and PFOA, though the number could be much higher.
Other estimates indicate the chemicals have contaminated more than 1,500 water systems, affecting up to 110 million Americans.
"If you go out looking for it, if you go sample for it, you're gonna find it," said Peter Schneider, the water quality supervisor for the city of Greensboro, N.C., where officials recently announced it would test private water wells after the chemical was found in the surface water supply. "It's a very prevalent and persistent man-made chemical."
A 2017 analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group and researchers at Northeastern University showed contamination in nearly every state, with the highest levels in California and the eastern part of the country.
In June, a study by the from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry reported that PFOS and PFOA contamination has been found in just about every aspect of the environment, including air, water, soil and food in various parts of the world.
"Based on environmental measurements and theoretical models, one study has proposed that the major exposure pathways for PFOS for the general population in Europe and North America are food and water ingestion, dust ingestion and hand-to-mouth transfer from mill-treated carpets," the report states. "For PFOA, major exposure pathways were proposed to be oral exposure resulting from migration from paper packaging and wrapping into food, general food and water ingestion, inhalation from impregnated clothes and dust ingestion."
The chemicals have also been found in human breast milk and umbilical cord blood.
Studies suggest that exposure to the chemicals may lead to cancer. The ATSDR report states that "increases in testicular and kidney cancer have been observed in highly exposed humans."
Other health effects may include increased risk of thyroid disease, increased risk of asthma, increased cholesterol levels, decreased fertility and lower birth weights, according to the report.
Although chemical manufacturers in the United States have stopped using PFOS and PFOA, the 50-plus years they were in use allowed for substantial amounts to get into the country's water supply. In addition, they are still being manufactured overseas in countries like China and products containing PFOS and PFOA are still entering the country.
Federal agencies have not taken any major steps to combating the contamination. In 2016, the EPA advised local governments to test for the compounds, but has not taken any additional efforts to eliminate the contaminants from water supplies.
Rob Bilott, a Cincinnati attorney who has been litigating PFOA and PFOS contamination lawsuits for 18 years and filed a class action lawsuit against chemical giants 3M, Dupont and Chemours on behalf of all people who have been affected by PFOS and PFOA, said the federal government is moving too slowly to deal with a major public health concern.
"As we sit here today, there is still no enforceable federal standard. It's time to set appropriate guidelines that are protective for human health," he said. "It would be important to see increased testing at additional water supplies. Some states are taking that on now, going out and actually doing comprehensive testing of the various supplies."
Bilott said the EPA's standard of 70 parts per trillion is too high. Grandjean agrees. He published a study that found levels as low as 1 part per trillion may be enough to pose health risks.
"The water safety guidelines ought to be coming down. They're still too high, especially for having several of these different chemicals in the water at the same time," Billot said.
Testing got late start
In Greensboro, N.C., officials implemented in October an active carbon filtration system to the city's water treatment program to remove PFOS and PFOA compounds. According to WFDD-TV, the city is leasing the system for $9,000 a month, in addition to $800 per day for treatment costs.
Like other municipalities around the country, Greensboro officials began testing for PFOS and PFOA only after the EPA sent out an advisory to do so in 2016.
"It's very recent issue in the sense that people have started looking and testing for it, but it's been out there," Schneider said.
That EPA's 2016 advisory was sent out almost 10 years after the EPA encouraged -- but did not require -- chemical companies to stop manufacturing PFOA and PFOS. And that 2006 invitation came only after controversies that chemical companies were hiding reports that showed the harmful effects of the chemicals.
'We discovered later on that we have been kept from key information the companies had," Grandjean said. "We were not able to access the information and evaluate for ourselves whether this is something we should pursue or perhaps report to the EPA so that they could get their regulations started. We were kept in the dark."
He added: "As a researcher in public health, I would have done a lot of things differently had I known before 2000 that there were all these red flags that I just didn't see because the evidence was kept away from my eyes."
But with the effects known and the prevalence of the contaminant better understood, lawsuits have been filed against chemical manufacturers leading to multimillion-dollar settlements.
In February, 3M agreed to pay $850 million to Minnesota for polluting the state's local waterways.
In 2017, Dupont and Chemours agreed to pay $670 million in a similar lawsuit involving residents in Ohio and West Virginia along the Ohio River.
And there are several more lawsuits in the works.
Bilott says the settlements reached in these lawsuits should be used for the costs of testing and water treatment.
"Local water suppliers and taxpayers should not be the ones footing the bill for this," he said.