Add “forever chemicals” to the list of things you need to worry about.
Their official names are Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), and are considered part of a larger family of per- and poly- fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short. Though no longer manufactured in the United States, PFOA and PFOS were once used in many consumer goods like furniture fabric, clothing and paper food packaging, as well waste management infrastructure and fire-fighting foam. They are also extremely dangerous–the extent of which researchers are still determining.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, these chemicals can “affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children,” “lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant,” “interfere with the body’s natural hormones,” “increase cholesterol levels,” “affect the immune system” and, of course, “increase the risk of cancer.” They are popularly known by the ominous term “forever chemicals.”
“Often referred to as ‘forever chemicals,’ PFAS can persist indefinitely in the ground and water, be absorbed into people’s blood and accumulate in their bodies for years,” states this Oct. 8 Los Angeles Times story. “Some states and public health advocates say PFAS are harmful at much lower levels than the federal health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. California requires state regulators to be notified at levels as low as 5.1 parts per trillion.”
PFAS have been in the news a lot lately, most recently this Los Alamitos-Seal Beach Patch story on how the Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos just made a list of 90 military bases nationwide to have significant PFAS contamination (mostly from firefighting foam). Okay, it didn’t just make the list–according to this Military Times story from last month, it nearly came out on top.
“The no. 2 and 3 most-contaminated installations are the Guard’s Joint Forces Training Base in Los Alamitos, California, and Belmont Armory, Michigan,” states the Military Times story.
As for the U.S. Army, it insists that it has the contamination at the Los Alamitos base under control. Or at least, it’s keeping soldiers from drinking contaminated water.
“The Army proactively tested its drinking water systems and mitigated where PFOS/PFOA levels in drinking water systems were above the EPA LHA [lifetime health advisory] of 70ppt,” states this Aug. 9 U.S. Army response to a FOIA request for documents on the contamination by the non-profit activist organization Environmental Working Group. “There are currently no Army personnel or families drinking water with levels of PFOS/PFOA above the LHA. We will continue working with Department of Defense Energy Installations and Environment to review historical documents and collect soil and groundwater samples to identify areas that may have been impacted by PFOS/PFOA.”
Needless to say, Environmental Working Group officials didn’t find a lot of comfort in the Army’s response.
“These results are alarming, because they show that PFAS contamination of the water provided to our soldiers is nationwide and exposes them to a number of types of PFAS,” said EWG Senior Scientist Dave Andrews, Ph.D, in this Sept. 11 EWG post. “Because many PFAS chemicals build up in the body, even very low concentrations in drinking water can increase the risks of serious health problems. What’s more, the lack of regular monitoring suggests that military personnel could have been drinking water with even higher levels of PFAS in the past.”
Of course, it should also be made clear that PFAS contamination of groundwater isn’t limited to military bases. In fact, this Aug. 30 Orange County Register story details how PFAS contamination can be found throughout Southern California.
“In Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, 74 water agencies have been ordered by the state to test for PFOA and PFOS,” states the Register story. “The 330 targeted wells were picked because they are located where PFOA and PFOS can linger, particularly near landfills, airports and military bases, and downstream of wastewater plants.”
What’s more, the LA Times story cited above also reported that at the old Marine Corps Air Station Tustin, PFAS samples “were as high as 770,000 parts per trillion”–11,000 times higher than the EPA’s 70 parts per trillion health threshold.
A variety of federal, state and county agencies are researching PFAS contamination, as well as its health effects. The Orange County Water District (OCWD) insists that the drinking water here is safe.
“OCWD’s Philip L. Anthony Water Quality Laboratory is the first public agency laboratory in California to achieve state
certification to analyze for PFAS in drinking water,” states this OCWD fact sheet on PFAS contamination. “All water agencies in OCWD’s service area operate their water systems following all drinking water requirements for PFOA and PFOS established by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and DDW [the state Division of Drinking Water].”
Anthony Pignataro has been a journalist since 1996. He spent a dozen years as Editor of MauiTime, the last alt weekly in Hawaii. He also wrote three trashy novels about Maui, which were published by Event Horizon Press. But he got his start at OC Weekly, and returned to the paper in 2019 as a Staff Writer.