Firefighting foam liberally used by the South Dakota Air National Guard and Sioux Falls Fire Department decades ago is the source of significant pollution to the drinking water of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, residents. Nineteen municipal wells representing 28 percent of the city’s water coming from the Big Sioux aquifer have been shut down.1
Fifteen of them contain polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFASs) from the firefighting foam, which include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), one of the highly toxic chemicals used in the production of Teflon, and a similar chemical, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). The toxic legacy persists because once PFAS enters the environment, it doesn’t break down but rather persists indefinitely.
The extent of the contamination remains unclear, as do the potential health risks to longtime residents of the area. As reported by the Rapid City Journal, “As city officials grapple with the well shutdowns … it may soon face an even larger challenge when citizens begin to learn how long their drinking water was contaminated before it was detected and the wells taken offline.”2
Residents Weren’t Notified of the Pollution for Three Years After the First Detection
It was 2011 when water leaving the Sioux Falls water purification plant was first tested for PFAS. It was tested again in 2012, but the city didn’t receive the results until 2013. PFAS was detected but at levels below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisory level. The city then tested all of their wells for PFAS and eventually shut down all that contained PFAS.
The city then tested for PFAS again in 2014 and 2016, when the EPA lowered its health advisory level for PFAS to 70 parts per trillion (ppt). The 2016 tests found PFOS, which led to more wells being shut down. It was that year that the city finally released an announcement to tell residents about the contamination that had been found.
The culprits, as detected by a consultant hired by the Department of Defense (DoD) and reported by the Rapid City Journal, was firefighting foam used for decades, beginning in 1970. First the Sioux Falls Fire Department sprayed the PFAS-laden foam at the city’s airport weekly during tests and training.
In 1991, the South Dakota Air National Guard took over the firefighting duty and continued to release firefighting foam into the city’s sewer system.
At least a dozen wells have been found to contain PFOA/PFOS at levels above the EPA’s advisory level, one with concentrations 3,500 times over and another at 200 times the limit. Ten of the wells, which produced an average of 440 million gallons of water per year, may be shut down indefinitely. According to the Rapid City Journal:3
“Further investigation by the Air Guard is scheduled for 2019, including the possibility of off-base testing. Another report will follow, though it’s unlikely to be published until late 2019 or in 2020.
It’s been nearly five decades since the Air Force first used firefighting foam, one decade since the EPA set its first advisory level for PFOA/PFOS and a half-decade since the base learned of the city’s municipal well contamination. The Air Guard, however, shows no sense of urgency in completing its inspections.”
PFAS Contamination in Drinking Water Common Near Military Bases
DoD has reported that at least 126 drinking water systems near military bases are contaminated with PFASs, due to their use in firefighting foam.4 However, although other countries are now using firefighting foam that does not contain these toxic chemicals, the U.S. military is not.
As reported by Sharon Lerner, a reporting fellow at The Investigative Fund and an investigative journalist for The Intercept and other major media outlets:5
“[E]ven as the Army, Navy and Air Force have begun the slow process of addressing the contamination, which is expected to cost upwards of $2 billion, the Department of Defense isn’t abandoning this line of chemicals.
While some of the precise formulations that caused the contamination are off the table, the U.S. military is in the midst of an expensive effort to replace older foam with a newer formulation that contains only slightly tweaked versions of the same problematic compounds …
Some of the studies showing the dangers of these persistent chemicals came from the manufacturers themselves … The new foam contains no PFOS and ‘little or no PFOA,’ according to an Air Force press release.6 Instead, it uses the closely related molecules that pose many of the same dangers … ”
This includes shorter-chained replacement PFAS chemicals such as PFHxS, which have very similar concerns as other PFASs, according to a report prepared by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) HHS’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).7
The fact remains that much is unknown about the extent of contamination and the resulting human health and environmental damage that may have occurred. “Important questions about today’s PFAS contamination remain unanswered,” the Rapid City Journal reported, adding:8
“From the date PFAS entered a private well or municipal water system to the date it was detected and mitigated, what was the effect and on whom? How many airmen and women handled and used the foam for decades without proper protection? What was the effect and where are they now?”
16.5 Million Americans Could Be Drinking PFAS-Contaminated Water
According to a 2016 Harvard study, 16.5 million Americans have detectable levels of at least one kind of PFAS in their drinking water, and about 6 million Americans are drinking water that contains PFAS at or above the EPA safety level.9
While toxic water supplies were found in 33 states, 75 percent of the samples with elevated PFAS came from 13 states: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts and Illinois.
Not surprisingly, the highest concentration levels of PFAS were found in watersheds near industrial sites, military fire training areas and wastewater treatment plants, but private wells were also found to be contaminated. According to the study:10
“Among samples with detectable PFAS levels, each additional military site within a watershed’s eight-digit hydrologic unit is associated with a 20 percent increase in PFHxS, a 10 percent increase in both PFHpA and PFOA, and a 35 percent increase in PFOS.
The number of civilian airports with personnel trained in the use of aqueous film-forming foams is significantly associated with the detection of PFASs above the minimal reporting level.”
It’s known, also, that people with such chemicals in their drinking water have higher levels in their bodies as well. For instance, one study compared detection of perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) in public drinking water with PFAA concentrations for 1,566 California women.
The researchers found serum concentrations of two PFAAs, PFOS and PFOA, were 29 percent and 38 percent higher, respectively, among women with detectable levels in their drinking water compared to those without detectable levels.11
What’s more, the ATSDR report suggests that in order to protect public health, the EPA’s safety threshold levels should be much lower than 70 ppt, down to 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA.12 If the EPA safety level were lowered according to ATSDR’s recommendation, it means far more Americans are actually at risk.
Already, certain states, including Vermont and Minnesota, have proposed or set lower drinking water standards for PFOA, including 14 ppt in New Jersey. Michigan even proposed setting a standard of 5 ppt for PFAS in December 2017.
There are other questionable chemicals in firefighting foam as well, but the EPA has only set standards for PFOS and PFOA — and these are the only two chemicals the military is looking to remediate.
“The exclusive focus on PFOA and PFOS means that some people who have the broader category of chemicals at considerable levels in their drinking water do not receive clean water from the military,” The Intercept reported.13
What Are the Health Risks of Drinking PFAS-Contaminated Water?
In May 2015, more than 200 scientists from 40 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which warns about the harms of PFAS chemicals and documents the following potential health effects of exposure:14
Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems
Adverse neurobehavioral effects
Neonatal toxicity and death
Tumors in multiple organ systems
Testicular and kidney cancers
Reduced birth weight and size
Decreased immune response to vaccines
Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty
Environmental concerns regarding firefighting foam first surfaced in the 1970s, and in 2000 its maker, 3M, finally said it would stop making the chemical. The decision came in response to an animal study that found PFOS led to weight loss, enlarged livers and premature death in monkeys, even at the lowest dose of exposure.
The EPA acknowledged such risks to the Pentagon at the time, but although 3M stopped making the toxic foam, other companies did not. Further, they (DuPont and other chemical companies) also created the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition to present to the EPA on the firefighting foam’s supposed safety and usefulness for protecting military personnel from fires. The Intercept continued:15
“One of the coalition’s biggest tests came at an October 2003 meeting that was part of the EPA’s investigation of perfluorinated chemicals. The agency was considering whether telomers used in AFFF [firefighting foam], as well as the foam itself, should be part of that regulatory investigation.
Had the agency concluded that the other surfactants in AFFF posed a significant threat, that step could have led fairly quickly to restrictions — or at least to a voluntary phase-out of the chemicals — as it eventually did with PFOA and PFOS.
But at the meeting, the Fire Fighting Foam Coalition asked the EPA to exempt it from the regulatory process [which they did] … It was a major victory. Since then, the Army, Navy and Air Force have continued to use AFFF across the country and abroad with little involvement from the EPA or pressure to replace its products.”
The foam remains in use even as PFASs have been linked to negative liver, cardiovascular, endocrine, immune, reproductive and developmental effects, while other studies have revealed subtle effects such as an increased risk of obesity in children when exposed in utero and lowered immune response.16
Can PFAS Be Removed From Your Drinking Water?
PFAS has no taste or smell, so the only way to know if it’s in your drinking water is to have your water tested. Because drinking water contaminants are so widespread, it’s wise to filter your water, but be aware that most water filters, such as those commonly sold at supermarkets, will not remove PFASs.
The New Jersey Drinking Water Quality Institute recommends using granulated activated carbon “or an equally efficient technology” to remove chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS from your drinking water.17 Activated carbon has been shown to remove up to 90 percent of these chemicals. If you suspect you’ve already been exposed, implementing a detox program is highly recommended.
In addition, it’s wise to avoid other sources of PFAS. Aside from firefighting foam, these chemicals are also widely used in nonstick cookware, water- and stain-repellant clothing, furniture and carpets, fast food wrappers and microwave popcorn bags.
At the very least, if you live anywhere near a military installation or fire department fire-training area, consider getting your tap water tested for PFAS and other toxic contaminants, and in the meantime, assume it’s contaminated and start filtering it as soon as possible.