Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of chemicals that have been used since the 1950s in firefighting foams and many consumer products that includes firefighting foams, stain- and water-resistant fabrics, nonstick cookware and food packaging. PFAS chemicals are highly stable, so when they are released, people can be exposed through air, dust, food, and water resulting in widespread exposure.
Many types of PFAS are known to have adverse health effects on humans including increased cholesterol levels, changes in liver enzymes, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure in pregnant women, and decreased birth weight. Epidemiologic studies also suggest a link between exposure to certain types of PFAS and increased rates of kidney, prostate, and testicular cancer.
The Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire may have exposed area residents to PFAS in their drinking water for decades. The US Air Force operated this base from 1956-1991, and upon its closure the EPA added it to the National Priorities List, a “list of contaminated sites with known or threatened releases of hazardous substances” because of groundwater and soil contamination. This contamination likely came from PFAS in the chemicals the Air Force used to extinguish fires which seeped into the groundwater and water wells servicing the surrounding community. In 2014, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) measured elevated PFAS levels in these wells and in the blood of people who had been drinking from them. In response, one of these water wells was shut down and the remaining ones were fitted with water treatment systems to remove PFAS contaminants.
ATSDR states that these changes will ensure residents are no longer exposed to PFAS, but it offers little guidance for people who may have been exposed to PFAS in the drinking water before 2014. It provides no information about how residents should monitor their health or how long they may have been exposed to PFAS. PFAS levels in the area water wells are now being periodically monitored and ATSDR and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are conducting a biomonitoring health study of children and adults exposed to PFAS-contaminated water in the area.
Similar PFAS contamination is occurring at sites across the country including in Alaska at several sites near facilities that used PFAS-containing compounds in fire-fighting chemicals. As of 2019, 10 communities in Alaska have PFAS levels in their drinking water that the EPA deems unsafe. Alarmingly, Alaska is rolling back regulations and testing on PFAS in drinking water. State and federal agencies are failing to fully investigate potential sources of PFAS contamination and the effects on the surrounding areas.
Many things are unclear about the PFAS exposure communities around the country, but what is clear is that more must be done: more scientific studies to understand the health effects of PFAS, more transparent recommendations from health agencies to the community, and more precautions to keep people safe from these chemicals.
Click here to learn more about Testing for Pease, a community action group whose mission is to be a reliable resource for education and communication while advocating for a long-term health plan on behalf of those impacted by the PFAS water contamination at the former Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH.
Click here to learn more about PFAS contamination in Alaska.