Guam may become one of no less than eight sites containing former or current military bases to be studied for the possible health implications of perfluorinated compounds.
About $7 million has been set aside in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act for the study, to be conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"More than 6 million Americans are drinking water polluted with highly fluorinated chemicals," according to a Nov. 16 press release from the Green Science Policy Institute, an organization founded in 2008 dedicated to reducing harmful chemicals in products.
"These substances, used as stain and water repellents and in fighting aviation fires, are associated with serious health problems including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, and decreased response to vaccines."
Tom Bruton, a scientist with the institute, told The Guam Daily Post that additional provisions in the NDAA include funding for military environmental cleanup efforts and a mandated report from the Department of Defense on initiatives to utilize firefighting foam that does not use perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) – two common fluorinated chemicals.
Green Science has been collaborating with Phil Brown, the director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University, and one of 39 scientists that submitted a letter to federal lawmakers as well as the Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration, "because the firefighting foams used at military bases and airports are responsible for a major share of the pollution," according to the Green Science release.
The study is to be for five to seven years.
Three Guam water wells were shut down by the local water utility in August 2016 because the detectable amount of PFOS in those wells exceeded an updated health advisory from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Two of the three wells were located in the south while the remaining well, NAS-1, was located in Tiyan where the A.B. Won Pat International Airport resides and where the former Naval Air Station Agana once existed.
PFOS was later detected in two more wells near NAS-1 but the treatment system in these wells were able to dilute the compound to acceptable concentrations.
The health advisory from USEPA set the allowable concentration of PFOS in drinking water to 70 parts per trillion (ppt). There were 176 samples taken from Guam, four of which exceeded the health advisory. The highest recorded concentration of PFOS was at 410 ppt for one of the wells, placing Guam at about the midrange of highest concentrations.
Some districts tested above 1,000 ppt.
When former Sen. Hope Cristobal heard news of the contaminants, she wanted to learn more about PFOS.
"So I wrote to a friend at Brown University and she referred me to Phil Brown at Northeastern University. So I wrote to him and asked what is (PFOS). That's how I got involved in this," Cristobal told the Post.
"About two or three weeks ago, Dr. Brown's assistant wrote to me and said that they have been studying the emergent chemical ... and I said, 'That's great, can you fill me in?'"
Cristobal is also a member of the Guam Coalition for Peace and Justice and the Northern Guam Soil and Water Conservation District. A separate joint release from the organizations said the NDAA provisions had implications for Guam.
"We know that firefighting foam was heavily used in training at the former Naval Air Station (Tiyan) up through its closing in 1995," the local release stated.
‘Drinking dangerous levels of PFOS for decades’
Cristobal is also quoted in the Green Science press release.
"The people of Guam have been drinking dangerous levels of PFOS for decades," Cristobal stated.
"We know that firefighting foam was used in training at the former Naval Air Station up through its closing in 1995. NAS is adjacent to well NAS-1, which is highly contaminated. Furthermore, it is uphill from the most tainted wells, A-23 and A-25. Wells in Saipan are also heavily polluted. If it was detected at such high levels in 2016 and the base had been closed for so long, imagine what the levels were back in the 1990s."
However, Joey Duenas, chairman of the Consolidated Commission on Utilities, argues that the Guam Waterworks Authority has been following USEPA guidelines, although those guidelines shift from time to time.
The 70-ppt threshold is only the most recent benchmark issued by the federal agency. The prior threshold was 200 ppt and GWA's initial detection for the first three wells was at or above 110 ppt.
"The limit used to be, at one time, I think it was 400 ppt. ... There were several lowering downs. That does not mean that when it was 400 ppt, everyone was drinking contaminated water. It just means that they've come to the conclusion that they need to do more because they've decided to do more," Duenas said.
"Every year USEPA looks at all these different contaminants and as they look and see more contaminants appearing in certain areas, then they get more conservative. ... It doesn't mean for decades we've been drinking contaminated water."
Since the initial detection, NAS-1 has been placed back online with a new filtration system. The two southern wells, A-23 and A-25, remain offline.
As a member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Guam Del. Madeleine Bordallo remains "interested in ensuring that Guam’s drinking water remains safe and is well-tested for potential contaminants," according to a statement from her office.
But with regard to whether she could exert any influence to ensure Guam becomes one of the study sites, her office stated, "That would be an earmark, which is prohibited under House Republican rules."
The NDAA, a $700 billion spending plan, awaits the president's signature.