Groundwater near at least six military sites in the Great Lakes region contains high levels of toxic yet widely used “forever chemicals.”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reported that perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have contaminated water in the Great Lakes. PFAS are a risk to people who eat fish caught within the polluted waters.

“Forever chemicals” traced to firefighting foam

The EWG also warned that Pentagon documents show at least 385 military installations across America are polluted with PFAS. The toxic chemicals mostly come from firefighting foam often used in training exercises.

Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs, warmed that citizens who use well water and are near one of these bases where PFAS has been confirmed in the groundwater should be concerned. He added that citizens should be alarmed if they are near one of the hundreds of bases where PFAS is suspected but have yet to be confirmed.

Hundreds of bases contain water polluted with PFAS

Data from a review of department records revealed that PFAS was detected at shocking levels of up to 213,000 parts per trillion at the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda, Michigan, which closed in 1993.

State officials first detected the contamination in 2010. While the Air Force is already treating PFAS-contaminated groundwater at several sites in Michigan, local residents and members of Congress criticized the actions as insufficient and called for a more prompt and stricter approach.

The EWG said that its study recorded high readings at five other Great Lakes bases:

  • Combined levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), two of the most commonly used PFAS, reached as high as 1.3 million parts per trillion (ppt) at Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station in Niagara County, New York.
  • 135,000 ppt of the compound perfluorohexane sulfonate (PFHxS) at General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee.
  • 82,000 ppt of PFOA and PFOS at Alpena County Regional Airport (Michigan).
  • 17,000 ppt of PFOS at Selfridge Air National Guard Base in Mount Clemens, Michigan.
  • 5,400 ppt of PFHxS was recorded at Duluth International Airport (Minnesota).

A lot of civilian airports also have firefighting foam containing PFAS. Melanie Benesh, the group’s legislative attorney, said that some of the foam is often released to the environment during emergency fire suppression and training.

While federal regulations require airports to be equipped with foams meeting military specifications, Congress has mandated the Federal Aviation Administration to use foams that don’t contain PFAS.

The Biden administration is developing national standards for timely PFAS cleanups in drinking water and groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently has a non-enforceable health advisory level of 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA for drinking water.

Why are PFAS a cause for concern?

PFAS compounds were first developed in the 1940s. These chemicals are used in many commercial and household products like non-stick cookware.

PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down once released in the environment. Once ingested, PFAs can also accumulate over time within the human body.

If you’re worried about PFAS, avoid common sources like:

  • Drinking water, especially near a firefighter training facility or wastewater treatment plant.
  • Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, prepared using equipment that used PFAS, or grown in soil or water contaminated with PFAS.
  • Commercial household products, such as cleaning products, nonstick products like Teflon, paints, polishes, stain- and water-repellent fabrics and waxes.

There’s a chance that you’ve already been exposed to PFAS. Studies suggest that exposure to PFAS may have negative effects on your health.

The most-studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS and results suggest that both may have developmental, liver and kidney, reproductive and immunological effects in animal subjects. Research has also confirmed that both PFOA and PFOS have caused tumors in animals.

Findings also showed increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings linked to cancer (PFOA), thyroid hormone disruption (PFOS), low infant birth weights and impaired immune health.

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