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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Scientists say concerted effort needed to study types of chemicals leaked into Fairchild water

Julie Dibble, whose family has lived near Fairchild Air Force Base since the 1960s, is one of many residents concerned about water contamination from the base’s firefighting operations. She posed for a photograph beside the groundwater pump that supplies her homestead on Thorpe Road on Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

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.

PFOA is sometimes called C8 because of its molecular structure, which features a chain of eight carbon atoms. Bruton said that structure is what enables PFOA to build up in mammals’ bloodstreams over decades.

“It persists in the human body for a long time, and because of that, it has a better chance to build up to higher concentrations, and it has a longer time to have any adverse effects,” he said.

As an environmental engineer, Bruton said he’s not the person to ask about specific health effects. But he said compounds like PFOA are unlike other man-made chemicals that the average American comes into contact with.

“These perfluorinated compounds are unique in the world of chemistry in their persistence, their stability and the fact that they just don’t break down,” he said. “Almost all other organic chemicals that humans have come up with will break down on some scale, but these are at the extreme end of the spectrum.”

Bruton said his soon-to-be-published doctoral research was funded by the Department of Defense and focused on ways to break down fluorinated compounds using another chemical called persulfate, which is found in household products such as denture cleaner.

Persulfate reacts with fluorinated compounds to form salts that are practically harmless, Bruton said. The process works for “hot spots” such as manufacturing sites, but it would be nearly impossible to clean an entire aquifer that way, he said.

“Whenever industry is pumping out chemicals into the world that just aren’t going to go away, the world is basically filling up with them,” he said. “There are things that can be done, but it’s likely too expensive to work on the scale that’s needed, because these compounds spread out really quickly in groundwater.”