Study of Groundwater Chemicals Urged Science Experts Call for Research on Contaminants Found in Fairchild Firefighting Foam

By Sokol, Chad | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), November 17, 2017 | Go to article overview

Study of Groundwater Chemicals Urged Science Experts Call for Research on Contaminants Found in Fairchild Firefighting Foam


Sokol, Chad, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


A group of scientists, physicians and public health officials is calling for a nationwide research initiative to better understand the health effects of man-made fluorinated compounds, such as those leaked into drinking water from Fairchild Air Force Base.

In a letter published this week in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health, experts said more than 6 million people in the United States have been exposed to those chemicals "at concentrations of concern." They said there's an urgent need to learn precisely how the chemicals interact in the human body and in the environment, and what can be done to limit further exposure.

"A research agenda that is coordinated across the many impacted communities in the U.S. is needed to maximize what can be learned from these unfortunate exposures," the letter says. "A coordinated program of exposure analysis, biomonitoring, health studies and medical monitoring should help regulators set appropriate health advisory levels and contribute to preventing similar future contamination, both in the U.S. and internationally."

The letter was co-written by Tom Bruton and Arlene Blum of the Berkeley, California-based Green Science Policy Institute and signed by more than three dozen academics and health experts from institutions across Europe and North America.

Man-made fluorinated compounds are found in the blood of most Americans, and have been linked to kidney cancer, birth defects, immune system disorders, among other serious health problems. As key ingredients in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant coatings and a widely used firefighting foam, the chemicals have been found at high concentrations near civilian airports, manufacturing sites and more than 400 American military installations, including Fairchild, Joint Base Lewis-McChord and Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent to track the spread of the chemicals and supply clean water to residents near heavily contaminated sites. But the response from public health officials has been mixed, with studies ranging in scope and objective.

In Hoosick Falls, New York, for example, state officials stepped in to test residents' blood after disclosures of water contamination from a factory that made Teflon products. Airway Heights residents are not getting free blood tests, although the Air Force has been sampling wells, providing some residents with bottled water and picking up some of the city's water costs.

"What we see happening right now is sort of a scattershot response," Bruton said in a phone interview Wednesday. "As has happened in Spokane, the issue comes up all of a sudden, there's a lot of public pressure to do something, and local officials will usually end up doing something. But what that 'something' is has been different in all the different jurisdictions."

This year's National Defense Authorization Act includes an amendment from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., allocating nearly $62 million to clean up the chemicals near Navy and Air Force installations. "People near these bases reacted with understandable alarm when these chemicals were discovered in their groundwater," Cantwell said in a statement.

The bill, expected to come up for a vote in the Senate after Thanksgiving, also would require the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct a five-year study on the human health effects of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances - classes that include the compounds in Airway Heights' groundwater.

Bruton said that study would be a good first step in an effort that promises to take years or even decades. He said the nation needs a scaled-up version of the C8 Science Panel, a group of epidemiologists who examined the health effects of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, as part of a settlement between plaintiffs in the Ohio River Valley and DuPont, the maker of Teflon. …

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