By Connie Morrison —
A federal agency has agreed to investigate whether per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the toxins identified in April 2017 in the Town of Chincoteague’s drinking water, were present before April 2017.
PFAS are man-made industrial chemicals manufactured since the 1940s that are persistent in the environment and in the human body. In the case of Chincoteague’s drinking water, they are traced to an aqueous film-forming foam that contained PFAS that was used at a former fire-fighting training area at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility main base.
The drinking water examination is the result of a request to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services by Union Local 1923 of the American Federation of Federal Government Employees who work at NASA.
Union Local 1923 Chief Safety Officer Richard Hooks said PFAS chemicals might have been used as early as the 1980s. The union has employees who live on Chincoteague who “might have been getting dosed with these chemicals for up to 30 years,” along with other island residents and visitors.
“We started asking about two years ago if employees or people in nearby communities were exposed” to PFAS compounds, he said.
Historically, Chincoteague’s drinking water was predominantly from four deep wells (of more than 150 feet). Three shallow wells (of less than 60 feet) were also used during summers to compensate for additional demand during peak tourism.
After discovering four of Chincoteague’s seven production wells were contaminated with PFAS, those wells were taken out of service and NASA began supplementing the town’s drinking water with water from Wallops Flight Facility main base.
Since there was no data available before April 2017, Alan Parham, captain of the U.S. Public Health Service and acting director of the Division of Community Health Investigations Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, wrote to Hooks and other union officials indicating the water investigation would be undertaken by the Virginia Department of Health “using historical pumping rates for the Town of Chincoteague’s production wells (2011 to present) and the recent PFAS water sampling results from each of the Town of Chincoteague’s production wells to estimate the PFAS concentration in the finished drinking water before April 2017.”
A copy of the letter was provide to the Post.
“We’re concerned no one has done an epidemiological survey looking back,” said Hooks. He would also like to see biomonitoring of humans for potential cumulative impacts of the PFAS contaminants.
Exposure to PFOA and PFOS above the lifetime advisory levels “may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects ( e.g.,antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g.,cholesterol changes),” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Until those investigations are complete, Parham said his agency “cannot determine whether it is possible that people might be exposed to PFAS at levels of health concern in surface water and biota.”
Parham added that since NASA, Trails End, and adjacent wells are not contaminated, biomonitoring is not needed. “Because it is currently unknown whether the Town of Chincoteague’s finished drinking water might have historically contained PFAS at levels of health concern, PFAS biomonitoring of people residing in the Town of Chincoteague is not recommended at this time,” Parham said.
Hooks, who said he works at NASA in its water program, said he and other union members “are being blocked from participating in meetings,” and in doing so, NASA is not availing itself of their technical expertise. “NASA may be inadvertently putting people at risk,” he said.
NASA defended steps taken in response to PFAS detection.
“NASA proactively took action to provide supplemental water to the Town of Chincoteague,” said NASA Wallops Island spokesman Jeremy Eggers. “Since taking that action, sampling results for Wallops’ and the Town of Chincoteague’s drinking water continue to show no detection or detections of one part per trillion or less of PFOA or PFOS, the two substances the EPA directed facilities to test for, and sporadic, low-level detections (one part per trillion or less) of other PFAS.”
Eggers said that NASA also increased the number of PFAS compounds it tests for from two – PFOS and PFOA – to 18 and is implementing an additional water safety measure.
“NASA is installing a groundwater treatment system that will enable the Town of Chincoteague to use its shallow wells for production. The system is scheduled to be operational by early 2020,” he said.
Parham’s letter indicated a report of the new analyses will be made available for public comment before it is finalized in late 2020 or early 2021.
According to a background document attached to Parham’s letter, PFAS became a concern at Wallops because of past firefighting training activities that used aqueous film-forming foam that contained PFAS compounds.
After the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a drinking water health advisory for those compounds, NASA sampled monitoring wells and finished drinking water (water that has passed through or finished with treatment processes) in the former firefighting area. Elevated PFAS concentrations were found in the groundwater there, but not in the main base drinking water, leading to the investigation of the use of the aqueous film-forming foam at other locations on Wallops.
The expanded PFAS investigation yielded more potential sites and drinking water sources, including the Wallops Flight Facility drinking water system, sampling of the Town of Chincoteague’s drinking water system, several off-site adjacent residential wells, and Trails End Utility Company drinking water system.
Four of the seven production wells used by the Town of Chincoteague tested positive for PFAS at above the EPS’s drinking water health advisory level. The April 2017 finished drinking water samples had PFAS concentrations below the EPA drinking water advisory level.
No PFAS contamination was found in the Trails End system, nor at residential wells adjacent to Wallops.
PFAS have occasionally been detected at slightly above detection limits in Wallops Flight Facility main base production wells but never in the drinking water supply samples.
“NASA has worked proactively to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at Wallops and continues to take the necessary actions to protect human health and the environment,” Eggers said, adding that NASA has worked with ATSDR, the EPA, Virginia DEQ, and the Virginia Department of Health since 2016 when EPA developed a lifetime health advisory for two PFAS compounds.
“NASA has shared all sampling data and monitoring information with federal, state and local health agencies, which continue to advise NASA on necessary actions. Additionally, NASA also conveyed questions raised early on from several American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union members to ATSDR as far back as March 2018, as well as other federal state and health agencies. NASA relies on ATSDR and state health agencies to address health concerns and to direct any actions needed to protect health,” Eggers said.
Union members concerned about PFAS exposure at work were advised by Parham to “contact the National Institute of Occupation Safety (NIOSH) and Health Hazards Evaluation Program (https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/hhe/default.ht1gl) and request that NlOSH evaluate their potential job/occupational exposures.”
Eggers said questions about the ATSDR health consultation can be directed to Dr. Karl Markiewicz, senior toxicologist, at 215-814-3149 or via email at [email protected]
“NASA will continue to proactively address PFAS at Wallops and share information with federal, state, and local environment and health agencies, the public, and employees,” said Eggers. For more information, see https://www.nasa.gov/feature/background-latest-information-on-pfas-at-nasa-wallops/