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Health, Science, Environment

7 Questions About Cancer-Causing Chemicals From Scott AFB Answered

Airman First Class Anthony Uelk, on the ladder, along with fellow 932nd Airlift Wing flight line crew chiefs, refuel a C-40 in preparation for a launch at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois.
Christopher Parr | U.S. Air Force

This article was originally published in the Belleville News-Democrat.

Officials have just begun contacting people potentially affected by contamination from Scott Air Force Base after news broke last week that dangerous chemicals may have tainted drinking water.

Last week, the base joined a growing list of military installations where cancer-causing chemicals from firefighting materials have leaked into the ground and nearby water supplies. 

High levels of PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) can cause cancer and birth defects, among other health problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Here are seven things residents near Scott AFB should know about PFAS and their drinking water.

Is my drinking water safe?

If you get your tap water from a municipal supply, there’s no cause for concern, said Col. Joseph R. Meyer, vice commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott AFB.

But if you live near the base and drink from a private well, you could have reason to worry. The Air Force Civil Engineer Center is locating and contacting anyone who uses a well within one mile southeast of the base. Five have been identified so far.

The Air Force will test well water for PFAS levels, Meyer said. The EPA considers levels below 70 parts per trillion — the equivalent of about a drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool — to be safe for consumption.

If tests reveal PFAS levels above EPA standards, you should stop drinking the well water immediately. The Air Force will provide bottled water for free while it develops a long-term solution, Meyer said. That could include paying for a water filtration system or connection to a local municipal water source.

The Air Force could test more wells farther away from the base if contamination is found in those within one mile.

The Illinois EPA recommended that water districts within 15 miles downstream of the base test their supplies, said Tim Tripp of the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

Illinois American Water, which serves the base and much of the surrounding area with water from the Mississippi River, tests for PFAS levels and ensures they do not exceed the EPA standards, said spokeswoman Karen Cotton.

Kaskaskia Water District gets its water from the Kaskaskia River, which is downstream of Scott AFB. Silver Creek flows through the base before it meets the Kaskaskia in south St. Clair County.

A supervisor was not available Wednesday to say whether the district tests for PFAS, but an Illinois EPA spokeswoman said local districts are not required to sample for the chemical compound.

“PFAS is not currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act and U.S. EPA has not established a drinking water standard for PFAS,” spokeswoman Kim Biggs said in an email to the BND. “As a result, community water supplies are not required to test for PFAS in drinking water.”

An Illinois EPA database of results from water testing for the Kaskaskia Water District did not show any recent testing for PFAS chemicals.

Communities downstream of Scott AFB that source from the Kaskaskia include Mascoutah, Fayetteville, New Athens, Marissa and Lenzburg, according to the University of Illinois State Water Survey.

Where else do PFAS chemicals come from?

Perfluoroalkyl (PFOS) and polyfluoroalkyl (PFOA) acids are collectively called PFAS. They were first developed in 1947 as stain repellants and later used in firefighting, water-resistant materials and common household products such as nonstick pans, according to the Illinois Association of Groundwater Professionals.

The public at large first became aware of PFAS after the chemicals were detected in children near Ground Zero after 9/11, according to the association. Government agencies and environmental health advocacy groups have since worked to identify PFAS in the ground and water near landfills, fire training facilities, airports and refineries.

The use of PFAS in American manufacturing has been phased out since the early 2000s, according to the Interstate Technology and Regulatory Council, but up to 95% of the population has some level of it in their bodies because the chemicals break down extremely slowly. Imported products still contain PFAS chemicals.

Ingestion through drinking water is one of the most common ways people are exposed to PFAS chemicals. A 2016 EPA study found that 6 million Americans have dangerous levels of PFAS in their drinking water, but the research did not include water districts serving less than 10,000 people or private wells.

What are the health risks?

In studies on both animals and humans, PFOA caused problems with development, the immune system, reproduction and the liver, the ITRC reports, citing EPA research. The International Agency for Research on Cancer found both chemical compounds are connected to cancer.

The Air Force and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said they plan to study connections between the chemical and cancer in personnel at Pease Air Base in New Hampshire.

This week in Wilmington, North Carolina, childhood cancer survivors spoke about PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals.” Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo made an appearance at the event. Ruffalo has become an advocate of PFAS regulation after the release of his 2019 film "Dark Waters," a thriller about a lawyer who takes on a PFAS manufacturing company.

The chemical compounds are not controlled under any federal regulation, neither the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Clean Water Act nor the Clean Air Act.

Should I worry about my livestock?

Research has shown PFAS can poison animals. But the Air Force will not conduct testing on wells only used for livestock.

If you farm near Scott AFB and use well water for animals, you may want to consider testing the wells, according to the Great Lakes Community Action Partnership. The group offers assistance through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to rural residents who need well improvements in Illinois and other Midwest states.

Water for pets and livestock should meet the same safety standards as drinking water for people, according to the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. Michigan is one of the few states to develop its own health-based standards and the only state that regulates PFAS in surface water, according to the ITRC.

There are no food-quality standards for the presence of PFAS in animal products, livestock feed or crops, according to the Michigan agriculture department.

Who can I call if I'm worried about contamination?

Residents who drink from private wells can reach out to the Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center at 899-725-7617 or afimsc.pa.workflow@us.af.mil.

Those who don’t drink from a well but are still worried about contamination can contact their local elected officials or the St. Clair County Health Department at 618-233-7703.

Why is this happening now?

In 2016, the EPA set standards for PFAS levels in drinking water, and Congress pushed the military to begin further ground and water supply testing. That same year, Scott AFB found seven places on base where high levels might be found.

An independent consulting firm completed testing the sites and shared its findings with the Civic Engineering Center at Scott AFB in January 2019. In August 2019, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency released recommendations for how the Air Force should respond to the problem.

What will authorities do next?

The Air Force notified U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s office last week.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, speaks with Col. Joseph R. Meyer, vice commander, 375th Air Mobility Wing; Scott Air Force Base, Mark Kern, St. Clair County Board chairman; area mayors and other officials during a discussion about PFAS contamina
Derik Holtmann | Belleville News-Democrat

Durbin said he will push for federal regulation of PFAS. Scott AFB officials plan to locate and contact individuals with private wells near the base.

The Air Force will send a survey to those individuals about how they use their wells. Based on the response, the Air Force could test well water and pay for a permanent solution if it’s contaminated.

Scott AFB emergency vehicles are now stocked with a more “environmentally responsible” formula, according to Meyer.

“If we know something, we will say something,” Meyer said in a prepared statement. “We owe it to our neighbors and surrounding communities to be open to discussion based on the facts at hand.”

Kelsey Landis is a reporter for the Belleville News-Democrat, a partner of St. Louis Public Radio.

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