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Health officials prepare findings from blood tests of Bucks, Montco residents with contaminated water

The Pennsylvania Department of Health will release a full report on the test results next month.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Peter Grevatt, Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, and Cosmo Servidio, Regional Administrator for the Mid-Atlantic, listen to members of the public speak during a community meeting in Horsham to address PFAS contamination in drinking water.
The Environmental Protection Agency's Peter Grevatt, Director of the Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, and Cosmo Servidio, Regional Administrator for the Mid-Atlantic, listen to members of the public speak during a community meeting in Horsham to address PFAS contamination in drinking water.Read moreMATT ROURKE

State health officials have sent blood-sampling results to the 235 residents tested in the Bucks and Montgomery County towns where drinking water was tainted by chemicals from nearby military bases and hope to release in weeks a public report on the scope of the contamination.

The testing occurred as part of a pilot program for a federal initiative to sample residents' blood in communities affected by the contamination. Pennsylvania officials will share information from their testing of Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington Township residents with federal agencies to help develop potential testing programs in other communities across the country.

>>> READ MORE: Nearly 400 military bases must be tested for drinking water contamination — and it will take years

The blood tests were completed by the end of September, and study participants received their results in October, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. On Monday, the Health Department sent letters to each person showing his or her results compared to a community summary showing the overall results. Department officials declined to provide a copy of the community summary to The Inquirer and Daily News.

A complete report on the test findings will be released in December with a public meeting to follow, said department spokesperson Nate Wardle. No date has been yet scheduled for the meeting.

State health officials originally sought 500 participants for the study, and more than 600 randomly selected people had agreed to participate. But only 235 followed through with getting tested, even after the state extended the deadline. Because a scientific study needs a random sample, officials could not take volunteers.

Lynne Wahl, of Warminster, one of the residents who was tested, said the results she received in September showed that her blood has high levels of some of the chemicals — several times more than the national average and above the 95th percentile for one of the chemicals. Wahl, 69, said she took the results to her doctor.

"You can't make sense of it," she said. "I could see what was out of range but nowhere does it tell that's what it means."

Wahl said she agreed to have her blood tested because she has lived in Warminster for more than 40 years and is a breast cancer survivor. Her husband, who also had cancer, died in the last year.

After the blood-test results came in, Wahl said her doctor simply advised her not to drink contaminated water, but her township already changed its drinking-water source. Wahl said even though the test cannot prove whether the water contamination was connected to her or her husband's cancers, she still wanted to know her level because she's "had enough" health problems and frustration over the contamination.

Wahl said Wednesday that she had not yet received the community results summary that the state said it had sent to participants.

Pennsylvania was chosen by federal agencies for the pilot program to help officials examine how best to do studies in areas nationwide affected by the contaminants known as PFAS.

"That was the entire goal of this project … to look at how a study can be done on an area that has been affected by these chemicals, to help make sure that robust studies can be done in the future," Wardle said.

The water contamination, made widely public in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington in 2014, threw local residents into uncertainty that was later mirrored in communities across the nation. Residents with private wells were given bottled water, and public water supplies were shut off, filtered, or changed, making them free of the contaminants.

Relatively little is known about PFAS, the class of chemicals that seeped into drinking water after being used in firefighting foam at military bases. The scope of health effects on humans remains unclear. Scientists have linked the chemicals to a variety of health problems, including increased risk of liver damage, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased fertility, and certain types of cancer.

A state Health Department study updated this spring found elevated rates of cancer in the three townships, but said the results did not show a consistent pattern.

Many have clamored for blood testing and demanded an urgent government study of the issue. During the summer, the Environmental Protection Agency created goals for addressing the problem and said it was developing a "PFAS management plan," while agency officials held a string of public meetings nationwide, including in Horsham.

Last week, the EPA released a draft document assessing the toxicity of some other chemicals in the PFAS group. The assessment is open for public comment. The agency is working to release the management plan "as soon as possible," according to a Nov. 14 statement.

Gov. Wolf has also created a PFAS Action Team that is scheduled to hold its first public meeting next week. Patrick McDonnell, the Department of Environmental Protection secretary, said in a news release announcing the meeting that Wolf is committed to take action on PFAS at the state level "in the absence of a federal response" to set better drinking-water standards.

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