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Bucks and Montco towns with water contamination chosen for blood testing

The Pennsylvania Department of Health is planning to test the blood of 500 residents in the Bucks and Montgomery County areas where drinking water was contaminated by chemicals from nearby military bases. It's part of a pilot study for what federal agencies hope will become a national testing program.

Medical assistant draws blood during 2016 testing program in New York State.
Medical assistant draws blood during 2016 testing program in New York State.Read moreMike Groll / AP

Bucks and Montgomery County residents who drank contaminated water for years have a rare chance to find out what's in their bloodstreams as part of a blood-testing study for what federal officials hope will become a national testing program.

But the Pennsylvania Department of Health ran into an unexpected issue — not enough households have signed up for the testing.

The department wants to test the blood of 500 residents in neighborhoods surrounding the Naval Air Warfare Center Warminster and Naval Air Station Willow Grove, where drinking water was contaminated by chemicals leaching off the bases.

Blood drawing was due to begin Thursday in Montgomery County but had to be postponed because not enough people had signed up, said Sharon Watkins, an epidemiologist with the state Health Department, at a community meeting in Willow Grove on Wednesday night. Blood tests did begin Wednesday in Bucks County, but more participants there still are needed as well.

At the meeting, Watkins asked any residents who have received letters from the Department of Health to respond. To be eligible, the resident must have lived in the affected area before July 2016.

The state is one of two chosen for a pilot blood-testing program by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR. Pennsylvania's Health Department will test the procedure in the hopes that the federal agencies will then broaden the program. "The study will lay the scientific groundwork for a larger, national study," the department's website says.

Because the tests are costly, and the samples can be analyzed only by a few labs in the country, little such testing has been conducted nationwide so far, and residents have repeatedly asked the government for it.

The chemicals, known as per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS (also referred to as perfluorinated compounds or PFCs, and including two specific compounds called PFOA and PFOS), were widely used at U.S. military bases in firefighting foam and have been found in hundreds of public and private drinking-water systems near bases across the country since 2014.

The Environmental Protection Agency held a summit on the topic last week in Washington, where officials announced they would work to designate PFOA and PFOS as "hazardous substances" and would evaluate the need for setting a legal limit for their presence in drinking water. The current level is merely advisory, and thus unenforceable.

The summit came after reports that EPA and White House aides sought to block the release of a study that showed the chemicals were more dangerous to humans than the EPA had said previously. The ATSDR official at the meeting in Willow Grove said the study was coming by the fall.

About 70,000 people in Bucks and Montgomery Counties — who lived near the Warminster or Willow Grove bases — were discovered to have water contaminated with PFAS. More than 130 with private wells near Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey were also contaminated.

In recent weeks, the Pennsylvania Department of Health sent letters to 300 households randomly chosen for the blood sampling, and 154 families replied. But only about 50 of those returned a second form necessary to schedule the blood-testing appointment. On Tuesday, the Department of Health sent letters to an additional 250 households, hoping to get more responses.

The study originally had been set to end Friday, but officials expect to receive an extension.

The blood samples will be analyzed by a lab in New York, and Pennsylvania health officials will give each resident the results.

Human health effects of PFAS have yet to be studied extensively, leaving residents with concerns and unanswered questions. The chemicals have been linked to some cancers, and according to the state Health Department, impacts might include affecting growth, learning and behavior of infants and children; lowering a woman's chance of getting pregnant; interfering with the body's natural hormones; increasing cholesterol levels; affecting the immune system, and increasing the risk of cancer.

In an addendum released in May to a 2016 study of cancer data in Warminster, Warrington, and Horsham Townships, the department said it found elevated incidents of some types of cancer, compared with the rest of Bucks and Montgomery Counties and the state as a whole, but that the overall results were inconsistent.

Health officials are still hoping to get 500 participants for the blood study and have clinics ready in Bucks and Montgomery Counties for the blood drawing. They can only choose residents randomly, not take volunteers, because volunteering can skew the results of a scientific study.