Forum on PFAS blood test results leaves Bucks, Montco residents with few answers

Gary Steinberg raises a hand to ask a question following a presentation by the Pennsylvania Department of Health on the findings of an initial study on the presence of chemicals found in local drinking water. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Gary Steinberg raises a hand to ask a question following a presentation by the Pennsylvania Department of Health on the findings of an initial study on the presence of chemicals found in local drinking water. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

About 80 Bucks and Montgomery County residents attended a state-sponsored forum Wednesday night, hoping to leave with answers about what elevated blood levels of toxic chemicals mean for their health.

But most of them left with more questions than answers.

“I still don’t know whether these numbers mean — I could drop dead tomorrow or live for another fifty years,” said Richard Giddis, 87, of Warminster.

Giddis, like 234 other residents who live near former military bases in Willow Grove and Warminster, was part of a pilot study run by the Pennsylvania Department of Health to assess the levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyls, also known as PFAS, in their blood. PFAS are found in the firefighting foam that was used on the bases, as well as in consumer products like nonstick cookware, food packaging and textiles.

The chemicals seeped into drinking water supplies near the military installations around the country and have been linked with health problems, including elevated cholesterol, thyroid dysfunction, and certain cancers. But the studies on the health effects are limited in scope, which is why Pennsylvania state epidemiologist Sharon Watkins couldn’t tell residents how those elevated blood levels could affect them.

“We need more studies,” she said. “We always say that, but in this case I think it’s really true.”

Watkins appeared with representatives from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, including associate director Christopher Reh, who said the agency was pursuing a multisite, national study to understand the science more clearly. But he also echoed Watkins’ uncertainty.

“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” Reh said.

The contamination of more than 70,000 residents’ drinking water in Horsham, Warminster, and Warrington townships was discovered in 2014. The water supply has since been changed to ones clear of the chemicals, but given the exposure to PFAS over several decades, 235 residents were offered blood testing by the state as part of a pilot project funded by the federal government. The testing was completed in September, and the results were mailed last month.

Blood samples were analyzed for eleven PFAS compounds. Four — PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and PFNA — were consistently detected at levels above the national average. Anywhere from 59 to 94 percent of those studied had elevated levels, depending on the compound being analyzed.

In the case of PFHxS, the average blood level was five times higher than the national average — 6.64 micrograms per liter versus a national average of 1.35 — and 94 percent of residents showed an elevated level.

Those who lived in the area for longer had higher levels of all four chemicals in their blood, as did older subjects, though Watkins said those two things are connected because it takes the body a long time to break down PFAS chemicals.

“Those people who have lived in the community longer have been drinking [contaminated water] for a longer period of time,” she said, “and these products have longer half lives.”

About 63 percent of those tested reported ongoing health conditions, the most common being elevated cholesterol.

But residents wanted to know how to interpret the data. They were asking if they are at risk for certain diseases and whether they should seek medical attention. The officials on hand didn’t provide those answers.

“We cannot tell you cause and effect,” Watkins said. “We can’t tell you what level of PFOA in your blood, for example, makes you more at risk or less at risk for various outcomes.”

Joanne Stanton of the BuxMont Coalition for Safer Water said that’s the information residents want.

“What does this mean to me and to the health of my family and to my children, possibly my unborn children?” she said. “That’s the heart of the matter. And that’s the question that can’t be answered by a small pilot study.”

That’s why she and others hope the community can be part of a $10 million national study being launched by the U.S. Department of Defense. A request for proposals to participate is expected to go out early next year.

“I think that we should be part of that,” she said. “Our preliminary data shows that we have been affected, and I think that we should be included.”

There is also ongoing frustration among state agencies over the disagreement at the federal level over what constitutes an acceptable level of PFAS in drinking water. The EPA recommends a combined PFOA and PFOS level of no more than 70 parts per trillion. But over the summer, ATSDR recommended a level seven to times lower than that.

In addition to causing contamination in other communities across the country, including the Pease Tradeport area of New Hampshire and Hoosick Falls, New York, PFAS have also been detected in neighboring communities like Upper Dublin and the North Hills section of Abington, though at much lower levels than the ones found near the former military bases. Water utility Aqua Pennsylvania took those wells offline for upgrades this summer, although the PFAS levels were below the EPA standard of 70 ppt.

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