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Toxins found in water near Bucks, Montco military bases more harmful than previously reported

The scientific report suggests that the amount of the contaminants — known as PFAS — that is safe for humans is lower than previously indicated by the federal government.

New carbon filters that removed PFOS and PFOA from a contaminated well in Horsham were installed in March.
New carbon filters that removed PFOS and PFOA from a contaminated well in Horsham were installed in March. Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

The chemicals found in water supplies near military bases nationwide pose more of a potential hazard to humans than the federal government had indicated previously, according to a new analysis released Wednesday.

The results of the study, which linked the chemicals to a variety of health problems, have been highly anticipated since reports surfaced last month that the Environmental Protection Agency and White House officials had sought to block its release, writing in emails that it would cause a "public relations nightmare."

The new information could heighten health concerns for thousands of residents in Bucks and Montgomery Counties — and across the country — who previously drank contaminated water or whose water currently contains the chemicals at levels that the government had once declared was safe.

The levels identified by the new report as safe for humans to ingest without a probable risk of health effects are lower than what was previously identified by the federal government. The report, put out by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), identifies the levels of the contaminants that a person could safely consume — and its threshold equals only one-tenth of the amount used by the EPA to develop its 2016 drinking water guidelines.

The new report concluded the risk level of the chemicals — known as per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and used on the local bases mainly in firefighting foam — is "roughly seven- to tenfold" higher than what the EPA used in its study, said Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist with the Environmental Working Group, which has pushed for stricter drinking water standards.

That could have implications for the drinking water guidelines, although the numbers used for risk levels and drinking water cannot be directly compared. The ATSDR used more and newer data in its study than the EPA had for its 2016 report.

>> READ MORE: Nearly 400 military bases must be tested for tainted water  >>

Questions surrounding the effects PFAS have on human health have swirled since the military-base water contamination became widely known in 2014. Tens of thousands of people in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington Townships were among the first to learn that their drinking water was tainted, and scores have reported cases of cancer.

The Inquirer and Daily News reported last year that the military was beginning to test the water around nearly 400 military bases.

Public water systems, private drinking wells, and military water supplies have been treated based on a 2016 EPA recommendation that advised people not to drink water if it had more than 70 parts per trillion of PFAS in it. But scientists and others have questioned that level, with some saying that no amount of the chemical is safe to drink.

PFAS are also found in many everyday items, including textiles, food contact materials (such as pizza-box coatings), nonstick cookware, and ski wax.

Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.), who had called for the report's release, said he was glad the document is now public.

"Informing the American people about the latest scientific assessments impacting their health shouldn't be political and shouldn't require members of Congress to pressure the administration to be transparent," he said in a statement.

In Pennsylvania, residents have clamored for information in the face of unanswered questions about human health effects of PFAS, which had not been studied extensively.

State Rep. Todd Stephens, a Republican who lives in Horsham, said Wednesday he felt "angry and frustrated" after reviewing the findings of the new report. No traces of PFAS are currently present in local drinking water because local officials switched water supplies, but residents are paying higher water rates, he said.

"Since these chemicals were first identified in our water, the federal government has failed to fulfill its obligations to our community and we are paying the price in higher water bills and, potentially, adverse health consequences," Stephens said.

The report released Wednesday described studies of the chemicals' impacts on both humans and laboratory animals. PFAS have been linked to a variety of health problems including increased risk for liver damage, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, asthma, and slightly decreased birth weight. Certain types of cancer are also linked to PFAS; the report stated that study results vary but there is "suggestive evidence of the carcinogenic potential" of the compounds.

Two years ago, a state Department of Health study determined elevated rates of cancer in Warminster, Warrington, and Horsham Townships, but the overall results did not show a consistent pattern, according to a May addendum to the study.

The department is also conducting a pilot study that includes blood testing for about 500 randomly selected residents. Data collected in the study will be used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and ATSDR to examine the creation of a federal blood-testing program for PFAS.