Tainted Water Near Military Bases Safety Concern


Military Base Water Contamination


“Aqueous Film Forming Foam was created by 3M at the behest of the Navy.

The foam is laden with perfluorinated chemicals, an unregulated class of man-made chemicals that travel quickly in water and last for years in bodies and environments.

The bases are in Alaska, California, Colorado, Delaware, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

The Air Force has spent $137 million to assess the scope of the problem, and is spending several million more to treat water systems and provide alternate drinking-water sources. It does not have an estimate of how much cleanup will ultimately cost, though one official said it would “likely be quite large.”

“This has focus at the absolute highest level of the Air Force,” Mr. Correll said. “We take it seriously. We’re addressing it aggressively. The Air Force will take responsibility for its actions.”

In the face of growing evidence of adverse health effects, the Environmental Protection Agency is considering whether to regulate the chemicals, which manufacturers have used for decades in everyday products like clothing, mattresses and food packaging. In May, the agency released a new health advisory on two of the best-known perfluorinated chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — suggesting that communities keep their water below 70 parts per trillion for the two combined.

Some who have followed the issue say the government has been too slow to act. “There are those who have argued it just became too big to regulate,” said Rob Bilott, an Ohio lawyer who has urged the E.P.A. to monitor the chemicals since 2001. “It just became such a massive potential issue because of how widespread these chemicals were.”

A spokeswoman for the federal agency, Monica Lee, said its response had evolved “as our understanding of how these chemicals affect human health has improved.”

In Colorado, Fountain, Widefield and Security were among 63 public water systems identified in May by the E.P.A. as having PFC-contaminated water. The communities, which have a combined population of about 60,000, sit in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains, and above an aquifer just south of Peterson Air Force Base. The military plays such a large role here that many refer to the base like an old friend, simply “Pete A.F.B.”

Fountain tested at twice the E.P.A.’s latest recommended level. Widefield tested at more than three times the guideline. And Security showed levels nearly 20 times the guideline.

The communities’ anger was evident on July 7, when an estimated 800 people crammed into two halls at Mesa Ridge High School to listen to a doctor, E.P.A. and Air Force officials, and others discuss the problem and their follow-up. PFCs cannot be boiled out of the water, they explained, and only certain filters remove them. The Air Force plans to spend $4.3 million to treat drinking water in the area.

“This is all I think about,” said Tanya Marcus, 38, who raised four children on Widefield’s water system. “I’m not so worried about myself. I’m worried about my kids and everybody else’s kids.”

Particularly worrisome for some was a state health report that compared cancer rates in contaminated areas with those in the rest of El Paso County. Kidney cancers were about 17 percent higher than expected, bladder cancers about 34 percent higher and lung cancers 66 percent.

A state health department doctor, Mike Van Dyke, pointed out that research had associated only one of those cancers — kidney — to PFC contamination, and that high levels of smoking and obesity in the area could explain the elevated numbers. “We don’t think this is a PFC effect,” he said, “but we can’t be sure.”

Utilities directors in the region have shut off many of the poisoned wells, and are pumping in water from elsewhere in the state, an expensive and temporary fix. Local officials have said some people’s water is now safe, while others’ is not. They urged caution, particularly for pregnant and breast-feeding women, but that has sown greater confusion. (The state health department has created a map to help people identify areas of risk.)

Ms. Soto, sitting in the bedroom she shares with the baby, Volk, said that she had switched to bottled water, but that she was breast-feeding and worried she was passing her exposure to PFCs to her son. Baby formula is not really an option, she said, as she works only part time at a Burger King that pays $8.75 an hour.

On recent Fridays, minivans and pickup trucks filled the sprawling parking lot of the St. Dominic Church, where a food bank passed out bottled water using money from a disaster fund.

On the morning after the community meeting, the first car showed up just after 5 a.m., hours before the handout began, its occupants anxious that the water would run out.”

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