SOURCE: Seattle Times

DATE: December 10, 2019

SNIP: For decades, cows on the Christensen farm sauntered across the pasture to quench their thirst at a creek that carries storm-water runoff from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.

In October 2018, the Navy disclosed the water contained trace amounts of toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used on the base during aviation accidents and training.

Brian Christensen feared harm to the cattle. So he fenced off the shoreline and installed a metal trough to hold water piped in from another area.

He’s still worried. The channel called Clover Valley Creek frequently floods, depositing sediments and possibly chemical contaminants on some of the farm’s low-lying acreage used for grazing and crops. And downstream, the pollution makes its way into Puget Sound’s Dugualla Bay, a rearing area for young chinook salmon.

“We don’t know what this is doing” Christensen said. “And that’s a big problem.”

The chemicals — perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS — have emerged as a pervasive pollution problem, one that for decades largely escaped regulatory scrutiny.

There are more than 4,700 compounds, found in products ranging from carpet to food wrappers to dental floss. And, since being introduced in the mid-20th century, they have made their way into public waterways and seeped underground into drinking-water wells, including some spots on Whidbey Island.

For Christensen and other residents along the creek, surface-water pollution also is now a concern.

Scientists are trying to better define the health risks the chemicals pose and at what levels, which is a key question since a survey indicates they are present in the blood serums of 98 percent of Americans. Meanwhile, federal and state officials seek to determine the scope of the pollution, and what to do about it, a task made more difficult since Congress has not listed PFAS as pollutants under the federal Clean Water Act or designated them as hazardous under the federal Superfund program.

Firefighting foams used to combat aircraft fuel-based blazes at the air station and many other military installations, have been a major source of PFAS pollution. Defense Department investigations have found PFAS chemicals migrated into ground and surface water at 400 current and former military installations, including Whidbey Island.

The biggest regulatory effort, to date, has focused on drinking-water pollution from two of the PFAS firefighting-foam chemicals, which already have been phased out by U.S. manufacturers amid mounting concerns.

These chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — may increase the risk for kidney cancer, immune-system disorders and other health problems, including impaired learning development of infants, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. As of yet, there is no regulatory consensus in the United States on what constitutes a safe amount of these two PFAS chemicals in drinking water and there are no federal standards to require a cleanup of drinking water.

The EPA has an “advisory guideline” to alert people to levels that could create health risks if they drink contaminated water over their entire lifetime. The guideline for PFOA and PFOs combined is 70 parts per trillion. On Whidbey Island, Navy-contracted testing has found 15 wells with levels above that guideline. The Navy has provided bottled or taken other measures — such as filtration system for Coupeville — to assist those well owners.

[Note: these are the same chemicals featured in the new film “Dark Waters”]