Firefighting Chemicals Are Contaminating the Water of 16.5 Million People

A firefighter uses foam to douse hot spots at a burned home in the aftermath of a wildfire that raged through the community of Cedar Glen near the mountain resort town of Lake Arrowhead, California on October 30, 2003. Southern California wildfires have killed 18 people, destroyed 2,600 homes and charred nearly 750,000 acres of land. Robert Galbraith/Reuters

Like those of many locals, the lives of the Amico family of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were inextricably linked with Pease International Tradeport, a large office park built in the early 1990s on the site of what used to be a military installation. Pease Air Force Base, active from the 1950s until 1991, used large quantities of chemicals called highly fluorinated compounds to fight fires and in practice drills. These chemicals are very similar to nonstick materials like Teflon, and an emerging body of research shows that they present serious health risks. They harm the immune system and brain, are linked to cancer and obesity, and disrupt the normal activity of bodily hormones.

These chemicals basically never break down, and once they get into the environment, they accumulate. And that's what happened at Pease. The chemicals seeped into the groundwater and remained there.

Andrea Amico's husband starting working at an office on the site in 2007. Four years later, the couple's first child, a girl, started day care at a newly built, well-regarded facility within the office park at the age of 12 weeks. They had a son, and he too went to day care, beginning in 2013.

In May 2014, a test revealed significant levels of perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) in the site's main well. The concentrations exceeded those allowed by a "provisional health advisory set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA]," so "the well was immediately shut down by the city of Portsmouth," according to a release from the city at the time. The contaminant was also found in the other two wells on the property, but at levels below those specified in the advisory.

Since then, the U.S. Air Force, working with the EPA and New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services, has begun to clean up the contamination, and the well is still off-line. The agency is working to install carbon filtration to remove the contaminants, Amico says.

The Air Force enlisted the services of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a federal agency that deals with minimizing health risks from hazardous chemicals. This group has tested blood levels of various fluorinated chemicals among people who worked or spent time at Pease International prior to May 2014.

Tests revealed that Amico's daughter had blood levels of PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) at three times higher than the national average, her mother says. For perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, the level was 11 times the national average. The Pease community in general had higher average levels of all three of these chemicals in their blood.

Although Amico's children seem fine now, she can't help but worry. "There's limited research on health effects, [especially in] children," she says. Her daughter was exposed starting at the age of 12 weeks, and the half-life—i.e., the time it takes for 50 percent of the substance to be eliminated—of some of these chemicals is more than seven years. "She's going to be a teenager before half of the chemicals are out. That's alarming to me. As a parent, I'm concerned about what this means for the long-term health of my children."

Federal and state agencies and the Air Force have been working with the community, but Amico says residents still have many questions. A large part of that is due to the lack of research on the possible effects on health.

The Air Force has identified 200 current and former bases where fluorinated compounds may have been released, and it tests for their presence in groundwater and drinking water. "Where we are a contributor, we will take appropriate action to address drinking water contamination," says Laura McAndrews, a spokeswoman for the Air Force.

A new group of studies published this summer fills in a few gaps in scientists' knowledge.

In one study, published in June in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, researchers identified a clear link between levels found in drinking water and in the blood, suggesting a primary route of ingestion is through the tap. Another paper, published in August in the same journal, tracked down the source of the chemicals, finding they originated at airports, military bases and manufacturers of chemicals like Teflon and stain-proof coating, as well as wastewater treatment plants.

The researchers on this paper, led by Elsie Sunderland at Harvard, found the chemicals at detectable levels in the drinking water of 16.5 million Americans, and they created a map of the United States to illustrate their results. Furthermore, the chemicals were present above federally recommended levels in the tap water of at least 6 million people.

But the problem is almost certainly larger than that. Sunderland and colleagues relied on information originally collected by the EPA, and that dataset lacks information on the drinking water of more than 100 million people, or one-third of the population.

Firefighters douse a smouldering dock fire that burned about 150 feet of a wharf area at the Port of Los Angeles, as foam swirls in the water around the dock, on September 23, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

One nationwide monitoring project—the 2011-12 U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey—found these chemicals in the blood of 97 percent of study participants.

As mentioned, these chemicals don't break down. Once they get into soil or groundwater, for example, "they will be there a million years from now," says Arlene Blum, a scientist with the Green Science Policy Institute and the University of California, Berkeley. The persistence of these chemicals is explained in part by the bond between carbon and fluorine, which is the strongest in nature.

One of the papers, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that adolescents in the Faroe Islands who had higher levels of the chemicals in their blood were less responsive to vaccines and got sick more often. The study found that as the levels of PFOA and perfluorodecanoic acid doubled, the concentration of antibodies in kids' blood for diphtheria dropped by 25 percent at ages 7 and 13. "This means that the immune system has become more sluggish and likely is unable to respond as vigorously as desired against vaccinations" and infectious diseases in general, says researcher and physician Philippe Grandjean, who has appointments at Harvard and the University of Southern Denmark.

A 2013 paper in the Journal of Immunotoxicology found that pregnant women who had higher levels of these chemicals in their blood gave birth to children who, at age 4, had lowered concentrations of antibodies against rubella. Babies born to mothers with higher levels of these chemicals also had more infections like colds and stomach problems such as gastroenteritis.

Highly fluorinated compounds may also interfere with a woman's ability to breast-feed. In a study published in July in Reproductive Toxicology, Grandjean and his colleagues found that women with elevated blood levels of highly fluorinated compounds breast-fed for a shorter period of time. A doubling of concentration of these chemicals in mother's blood levels was linked to a decline of nearly six weeks in total breast-feeding time.

Other research has found that mice with blood levels of fluorinated chemicals similar to that in highly exposed humans have impaired mammary gland development, so it's plausible that something similar is happening in humans.

This is a disturbing finding since breast-feeding is extremely important for the development of a child's brain and immune system, and the World Health Organization recommends that children be exclusively breast-fed for their first six months and partially up to two years or beyond.

Exactly how these fluorinated compounds cause harm is unknown. However, fluorocarbons are highly reactive and likely interfere with multiple processes in the body. Sticking around for a long time also increases the damage. Grandjean says that some of these chemicals are considered carcinogens, and this may be because of their ability to decrease the activity of the immune system, which finds and eliminates cancerous cells. Previous research found that higher blood levels of some of these substances significantly increase the risk for kidney and testicular cancer.

These chemicals are certainly effective at dousing difficult to extinguish fires, for example those involving petroleum and other flammable compounds. But there are alternatives with less or no fluorine that are beginning to be used. The Air Force announced August 15 that by the end of 2016, it will replace fluorinated foams used in its firefighting vehicles with an "environmentally responsible" alternative called Phos-Chek. This product was developed in partnership with the EPA and contains no PFOS and little or no PFOA, according to an Air Force release. The service has also stopped using fluorinated compounds during drills, McAndrews says.

Some older classes of these chemicals, known as long-chain perfluoroalkyl substances, have already been phased out by manufacturers. In many instances, these have been replaced by short-chain fluorinated compounds. According to FluoroCouncil, a group representing manufacturers of these chemicals, such substances "have been reviewed by regulators globally who have determined these alternatives are safe for their intended use.… These newer [compounds] continue to provide the unique benefits of fluorinated products but with improved health and environmental profiles." Blum disagrees, however, saying some evidence suggests that they have similar health effects and in some instances may be even more difficult to remove from water.

Peggy Reynolds, a scientist with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California, says that the United States needs to aggressively act to reduce exposure to the compounds.

"These are not chemicals that should be in our drinking water," she says.