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Water-Borne Chemicals Near Military Base Exceed EPA Health Guidelines

The chemical detection is the latest example of PFCs being found at levels above recommended health limits in numerous locations around the state

water test

Two chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other diseases have been found in a Burlington County creek at 16 times the health limit recommended by the federal government.

PFOA and PFOS, two of the PFC family of chemicals, were found at a combined level of 1,127 parts per trillion (ppt) in a stream that runs from a wastewater plant at the McGuire-Fort Dix-Lakehurst military base into the Rancocas Creek, a spokesman for the base confirmed.

The samples, taken last September, sharply exceeded the 70 ppt recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the upper health limit for lifetime exposure. They were even further above the 14 ppt recommended for PFOA last month by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, a scientific panel that advises the Department of Environmental Protection.

The chemical detection is the latest example of PFCs being found at levels above recommended health limits in numerous locations around the state. The chemicals, once used for products such as nonstick cookware and flame-retardant fabrics, have been phased out by manufacturers, but traces linger in places where they were used, such as Solvay Specialty Chemicals in West Deptford or the Burlington County military base, where they were a component of fire-fighting foam.

Last year, a national report identified New Jersey as having some of the nation’s highest levels of PFCs. Another showed that children exposed to the chemicals develop immune-system problems. Experts urged much tighter standards than those recommended by federal or state governments.

Growing public concern over the chemicals has helped prompt state scientific advisors to issue recommendations for tough new limits on two of the chemicals. The scientists who make up the Drinking Water Quality Institute are due to meet next week to discuss future work on PFOS, another type of PFC.

At the military base, the new tests have been done by a contractor for the military in cooperation with New Jersey’s Department of Environmental Protection. After finding the samples in the stream that flows out of the base’s wastewater treatment plant, officials are now testing private water wells in surrounding towns, according to Staff Sgt. Dustin Roberts, a spokesman for the base.

Base officials have requested samples from 271 properties in Pemberton, New Hanover, Manchester, and Jackson townships, and will use the data to inform a cleanup operation. The base does not publish results of its tests on individual water wells because of confidentiality agreements with residents, Roberts said.

“Right now, we’re in the testing phase,” Roberts said. “We’ve sent out packets to individual houses and we have a contractor that is handling water testing. Once we have the numbers, the EPA and all the agencies involved will decide how to go ahead with cleanup operations.”

The EPA says that long-term exposure to PFOA and PFOS at above its health-advisory limit may result in kidney and testicular cancer, damage to the liver and the immune system, developmental problems such as low birth-weight in infants, and thyroid problems.

Following the chemicals’ detection in a stream that flows into the Rancocas Creek, which then empties into the Delaware River, water-quality activists are now asking whether harmful levels of the contaminants are present in the larger waterways that supply drinking water to millions of people.

“We’re very concerned because the runoff … has found its way downstream in the Rancocas Creek and into the Delaware River,” said Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the environmental group Delaware Riverkeeper Network, and an outspoken advocate for curbing PFCs in drinking water. “There are people downstream whose drinking water could be affected.”

Since Rancocas creek flows into the river upstream from the drinking-water intakes for millions of people at Philadelphia Water Department’s Baxter plant and the New Jersey American water plant across the river at Delmar, NJ, officials should now be testing the water for any PFC contamination above those points, Carluccio said.

Roberts, the Joint Base spokesman, declined to say whether public health was at risk from the chemicals’ presence in waterways. He noted that the chemicals are unregulated by federal or state governments but that the EPA publishes its 70 ppt limit as a lifetime health advisory.

Roberts confirmed that the base was the source of the contamination. Military officials have been testing for the chemicals since last summer and found “multiple detections” in surface and ground water at 21 sites on the base where the fire-fighting foam was used, he said.

State Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Union), said the latest discovery of some PFCs in waterways highlights the need for the DEP to quickly follow the recommendations of the DWQI, as required in his bill (S-2468), which has been stalled in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee since last September.

Lesniak accused the DEP of ignoring the panel’s recommendations for maximum contaminant levels on 16 chemicals between 2005 and 2015. That list did not include the two PFCs now being investigated on the military base.

“DEP is guilty of gross negligence in not following the recommendation of the DWQI in this regard,” Lesniak wrote in an email. “It has ignored the science to the detriment of the public’s health.”

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said the testing and cleanup are being handled by the Defense Department, which he said is keeping the DEP informed of its progress. Hajna did not respond to Lesniak’s accusations.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who covers the environment and other subjects.

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