Government Studying Widely Used Chemicals Linked to Health Issues
WARMINSTER, Pa. — Two decades after concern emerged about a class of chemicals used in everything from Teflon pans to firefighting foam, the federal government has started the first in a series of detailed studies of the impact the chemicals have had on human health.
The goal is to determine what role the chemicals, known generally as PFAS, play in a long list of health conditions including thyroid, kidney, liver, cardiovascular and autoimmune diseases, among other ailments. The studies will involve thousands of adults and children in eight communities nationwide, and the findings will help determine just how extensive of a cleanup is necessary at sites where groundwater or drinking water supplies have been contaminated.
This is hardly an academic matter in communities like Warminster, a suburb of Philadelphia, where Hope Martindell Grosse grew up just across the street from the now-defunct Naval Air Warfare Center. The base is one of about 200 military installations around the country where groundwater has been contaminated by the chemicals, including at least 24 where drinking water was affected.
Ms. Grosse and several members of her family have had a series of health problems, including autoimmune disease, cancer and other unusual conditions, such as a missing set of adult teeth in both of her daughters.
Her childhood home was just 25 feet from the Navy base and for decades she and her family consumed water from a well in their front yard. Even after the house was connected to a municipal water system, the water coming to the house was still contaminated because the local supplier realized only about three years ago that it was also using groundwater contaminated by PFAS. The utility was then forced to buy water from outside the area.
Earlier tests of about 200 area residents have already confirmed high levels of PFAS in the bloodstream of people who lived near the former Warminster base and a second nearby military facility, Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove.
“My greatest concern is what this means for my children,” Ms. Grosse said. “I know my kids have this chemical in them.”
But what remains unclear is how strong the association is between PFAS exposure and various health ailments.
It is a question that federal scientists and researchers hope to answer, at least in part, with this first multisite health effects study. It will be conducted in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Michigan, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York and California, in communities where drinking water is known to have been contaminated.
In total about 8,000 adults and 2,500 children who lived in areas where drinking water was known to have been contaminated with PFAS will have blood and urine sampled and medical histories checked. The initial round of $7 million in grants to fund the work has already been distributed.
Delays in settling on and approving research protocol for the work in the seven other locations mean that actual tests on participants will most likely be put off until at least the end of next year. But researchers at some of those sites have started to collect historical information on drinking water contamination.
In most of the locations, the study will not specifically look for apparent correlations between exposure to PFAS and cancer, because the sample size is not large enough to produce statistically significant results, federal officials said.
But in Pennsylvania, researchers will be gathering data on hundreds of thousands of cancer cases in the area to see if there appears to be a high incidence of certain cancers among those exposed to the contaminated water, said Resa M. Jones, a Temple University epidemiologist who will be overseeing this work.
PFAS chemicals — which rely on a chain of carbon and fluorine atoms — are sometimes called forever chemicals, because the atomic bond in those chains is so strong they do not break down in nature, even after being ingested by humans. That quality led to their use starting in the 1950s on nonstick cookware, stain-resistant fabrics, carpets, cleaners and paints, and as a key ingredient in firefighting foams used at many military bases, among many other uses.
Public concern about the chemicals first emerged in the late 1990s in communities including Parkersburg, W.Va., which was home to a DuPont chemical manufacturing plant where one form of PFAS was made, after a series of illnesses emerged among area residents and even farm animals.
The discovery of this threat in West Virginia, and the struggle to get DuPont to cover medical costs, are the subject of a new movie, called “Dark Waters.”
Medical studies completed around 2012 in Parkersburg ultimately confirmed a “probable link” between the exposure to PFAS chemicals and testicular cancer, kidney cancer and thyroid disease, among other conditions. Animal studies have also suggested links between exposure and health problems in humans, federal authorities say.
Since then, certain versions of the chemical — there are thousands of different formulas — have been removed from the market, including two that were once widely used in nonstick cooking pans and stain-resistant clothes. But there remain concerns that some of the replacement chemicals may cause some of the same illnesses.
The new research now getting underway — which was authorized by Congress through the Defense Department after a bipartisan push led by Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire — will focus on exposures that are occurring outside any workplace, due to exposure to contaminated drinking water.
By doing the research in multiple locations where there are different levels of drinking water contamination, the apparent linkages between disease outcomes can be more clearly established, said Robert Laumbach, a Rutgers University researcher who is helping oversee one of the studies.
“This is an attempt to produce some important knowledge that can be useful not only for a particular community but more generally across the United States, in a large population,” he said.
The Environmental Protection Agency is separately also moving toward establishing federal cleanup standards for contaminated areas and also to decide on what the national safety limit for PFAS-related chemicals in drinking water should be, questions the agency has been considering for at least a decade.
Robert A. Bilott, an Ohio lawyer who has spent two decades pursing litigation against PFAS manufacturers including DuPont, said the research was a welcome step toward developing a better understanding of the health consequences of PFAS. But he said he remained determined to push the manufacturers to pay for an even larger study that would look in a more comprehensive way for correlations between PFAS exposure and cancer.
“I am glad to see the federal government is stepping in and recognizing more needs to be done,” said Mr. Bilott, whose story is the focus of the “Dark Waters” film and who has also written a book on his two-decade legal fight on the issue. “But I don’t want it to be a shield against more comprehensive studies that need to be done.”