Joint Base reports high levels of two hazardous chemicals in water

A pair of hazardous chemicals used for decades in firefighting at Joint Base McGuire/Dix/Lakehurst have contaminated ground, surface, and drinking water on and near the base, a spokesman said last week, with tests showing levels 20 to thousands of times higher in some samples than federally recommended standards.

Three of 131 private wells tested at homes off the base show evidence of the fluorinated chemicals known as PFOS and PFOA, Staff Sgt. Dustin Roberts said Friday, with one home’s drinking water containing 1,392 parts per trillion. The  Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory for these chemicals has set 70 parts per trillion as its recommended level.

Roberts said the base was providing the affected homes with bottled water and was studying ways to remediate the problem. None of the affected private wells serve schools or other public institutions, he said.

Two shallow wells that provide drinking water to the base showed levels as high as 215 parts per trillion, according to Roberts. He said he did not know how much of the base’s drinking water comes from the two wells.

The base spreads over 42,000 acres and straddles parts of eight municipalities in Burlington and Ocean Counties.  About 3,700 military and civilian personnel work on the base.

PFOS and PFOA are ingredients in firefighting foam used for decades on military bases. To date, the Air Force has not conducted or paid for blood tests of those who might be affected by the chemicals, Roberts said. The base provided the sampling data after a request from the Inquirer. The samples were analyzed by Maxxam Analytics of Ontario, Canada.

The highest level was 264,300 parts per trillion -- or 3,775 times the federally recommended level -- found in underground water on the base, according to Roberts, who said he knows of no evidence that the affected aquifer supplies drinking water.

Of 30 ponds and streams tested on the base, 19 showed evidence of contamination, with samples ranging from 12.5 to 8,830 parts per trillion.

The testing at Joint Base is part of a nationwide effort by the military to deal with contamination from PFOS and PFOA.

In 2014, three public drinking-water systems and dozens of private wells in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington were compromised by PFOS and PFOA that spread from former naval bases nearby. Since then, the military has started testing hundreds of bases nationwide for similar groundwater and drinking-water contamination.

Exposures to high levels of these chemicals, whose full names are perfluorooctane sulphonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) have been linked to a wide range of ailments, according to the EPA. These can include "developmental effects" in fetuses and breast-fed infants, low birth weight in newborns, accelerated puberty, testicular and liver cancers, tissue damage to livers, and effects on the immune and thyroid systems.

In use at McGuire and most other Air Force bases since 1970, PFOS and PFOA are additives in the chemical foam used to put out petroleum fires in crashed aircraft. They also were used frequently in practice drills by base firefighters. Roberts said Joint Base has discontinued their use in drills and fires, and is phasing them out of sprinkler systems in hangars. 

Staff writer Laura McCrystal contributed to this article.

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