Drinking water contamination can happen anywhere, affecting American families from every region of our nation and every walk of life. Even the United States Navy is not immune from the hazardous, life-threatening impact of emerging contaminants, and two such contaminants in recent years—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)—have unfortunately forever altered the lives of those working at and passing through Willow Grove’s Naval Air Station and Warminster’s Naval Air Warfare Center, located in Pennsylvania.
The Background: PFOA & PFOS & the Navy
A number of former staff and family of those stationed at Willow Grove and Warminster gathered last year at Pennsylvania’s Horsham Township Community Center hoping for answers.
After all, the quality of the drinking water they consumed for years at these U.S. Navy bases has likely contributed to a number of life-altering ailments.
Water contamination at the bases in Montgomery and Bucks counties brought Tim McNees and his wife, Denise, to the open house meeting on Tuesday, May 24, 2016 to learn more about potentially contaminated drinking water McNees ingested for years during his stay at Willow Grove as an Aviation Machinist’s Mate.
Since his time at Willow Grove, McNees has suffered a total of four aneurysms and two lost kidneys, on top of enduring five surgeries. It all stems from a mysterious blood-clotting disorder that’s had him spending the better part of the past year learning how to walk again.
The possible source of the mysterious blood-clotting disorder afflicting McNees is thought to be water at the base contaminated with previously unregulated chemicals—the aforementioned PFOA and PFOS, which were used in firefighting foam at the Pennsylvania naval bases. As McNees said:
This is what makes this kinda interesting because I never had any health problems or issues until we were stationed up here for several years.
The Navy now suspects this firefighting foam may have managed to pollute groundwater at hundreds of nationwide sites, specifically impacting as many as 70,000 sites within the local PA region.
What are PFOA and PFOS?
Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are human-made fluorosurfactants, which are chemical compounds that act as persistent organic pollutants that can now be detected in both humans and wildlife. Persistent organic pollutants, or POPs, are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation.
In short, POPs like PFOA and PFOS can easily accumulate in the environment, causing significant human and environmental health risks.
But why were these compounds previously unregulated? you may ask.
It turns out that no one really knew enough about the compounds to determine their potential for harm prior to their widespread usage in substances such as firefighting foam. In the U.S., it’s common for chemicals to be produced and put into mass-use prior to anything being understood about them--this approach is in stark contrast to European policies that rely on the 'precautionary principle'.
If we were tested, many of us would have traces of PFOA/PFOS in our blood, says the EPA.
This is because the chemicals have been used in both common manufacturing and food products, such as flame-retardant furniture.
Fortunately for some of us, scientists caught on to the threat posed by PFOA/PFOS, and the chemicals began to see more limited rollout beginning in 2000. As of 2015, production of both compounds have been effectively eliminated from production, but by definition, these POPs persist in our environment today.
While the EPA may have stepped up to the plate 15 years ago in sending out advisories and helping to cut back on PFOA/PFOS production, it was too-little-too-late for those on military bases across the nation, including people like the McNees.
PFOA/PFOS have now been officially linked to both reproductive problems and cancer.
And while the Navy can’t be sure, they aren’t ruling out that the ailments suffered by McNees and other former workers at the bases are a direct result of PFOA/PFOS exposure.
Sadly, government officials haven’t been much more forthcoming than this. McNees and others gathered at the May 24, 2016 open house and walked away frustrated, as military officials offered little explanation and no sign of relief in sight.
The available information dictated by government officials at the open house is:
- The fears of the community over the drinking water are absolutely not unfounded.
- No, the Navy did not know about the threat posed by PFOA/PFOS before the turn of the millennium.
- The Navy had no way of testing immediately for PFOA/PFOS once they learned of its threat. Reliable water tests for PFOA/PFOS were not available until 2012.
- In May, the EPA sent out a new, stricter advisory regarding PFOA/PFOS in drinking water.
- Following the release of the advisory, the government has been testing drinking water in Warminster, Warrington and Horsham, PA, with bottled water being distributed for free to residents in the interim. (Since then, resident volunteers have been pulled in, too.)
Despite these government actions, those gathered at the open house ultimately walked away with far less information than they were seeking—and their ailments aren’t ceasing.
In fact, Denise McNees’s father, who lives across the street from Willow Grove, discovered cysts on his kidneys.
Tim McNees called the open house “totally pointless and worthless.” And since the meeting, more bad news has arisen: The Navy won’t fund blood tests for PFOA/PFOS, citing that the results would not be “clinically interpretable.”
Families impacted by PFOAs and PFOs are victims of a bigger problem that impacts us all. Our approach to water quality regulations is a dangerous game of regulatory ‘catch up’ that leaves families like the McNeeses with unjust health problems.
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