Equilibrium & Sustainability

‘Forever chemical’ blood levels near W.Va. National Guard base higher than US average

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Blood concentrations of a “forever chemical” for residents living near the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base in Martinsburg, W.Va., exceed national averages, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC) has found.

The report, released on Thursday by the CDC and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), found that the level of one such chemical — perfluorohexane sulfonic acid, or PFHxS — was higher in the blood of Martinsburg area residents than in national average samples.

PFHxS is one of thousands of types of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), the umbrella group known as “forever chemicals,” due to their propensity to linger in the human body and in the environment.

PFAS, most known for their presence in firefighting foam used on military bases and civilian airports, are also present in a variety of household products, such as waterproof materials and nonstick pans. Long-term exposure to PFAS is linked to a variety of illnesses, such as kidney cancer and thyroid disease.

Other PFAS blood levels tested by the CDC and ATSDR in the Martinsburg area were similar to national averages or not detected enough to calculated averages, according to the study. The report noted that the elevated blood level of PFHxS may be connected to past contamination of the city’s drinking water.

Tap water samples collected during a 2019 exposure assessment complied with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2016 health advisories for two specific types of PFAS, PFOS and PFOA, according to the report. These advisories are recommended guidelines rather than regulatory standards.

There are currently no federal health advisories for PFHxS, but the EPA’s Office of Research and Development is working on developing toxicity assessment for this compound and four other types of PFAS, according to the agency’s PFAS Strategic Roadmap. A complete draft of the risk assessment for PFHxS should be available for public comment and peer review later this year, the roadmap said.

Several states, however, have taken it upon themselves to either regulate or set advisory levels for PFHxS in their water. West Virginia has not yet set standards for any type of PFAS, according to the Western Virginia Water Authority.

While ATSDR said it does not recommend that community members use alternative sources of water, the agency said it would be holding a virtual information session for residents on Feb. 3.

After the CDC and ATSDR released their Martinsburg findings, the Environmental Working Group stressed that PFHxS is one of the most common types of PFAS at military installations due to its presence in firefighting foams.

But the group noted that in addition to the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base, there are also 13 companies and at least one landfill in the area that may be dischargers of PFAS pollution.

“West Virginia is just a snapshot of the widespread problem of PFAS contamination plaguing communities across the United States,” Scott Faber, EWG Senior vice president for government affairs, said in a statement. “Every time studies are released on PFAS, the scope of the problem becomes even clearer, and so does the harm to people who are exposed.”

The Hill has reached out to the National Guard for comment. 

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