The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will randomly select residents who live close to the New Castle Air National Guard Base in Delaware to test them for the levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The PFAS chemicals are found in nearly every American home — they are used in nonstick cookware, waterproof coating and takeout food containers. The chemicals are also found in firefighting foam used by military bases, and that’s cause for concern for New Castle area residents.
The chemicals can enter the bloodstream through drinking contaminated water. Once in the body, they can cause a wide range of problems.
“They range from different types of cancers to effects on the thyroid gland to effects on pregnancy and development, as well as effects on cholesterol levels,” said Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor at East Carolina University, who is studying the impact of PFAS on the immune system. “Our work with experimental models has demonstrated that the immune system became suppressed upon exposure [to PFAS.]”
Other parts of the immune system might be overactivated by PFAS, she said, and that could lead to an increase in allergies or asthma, as well as a jump in autoimmune diseases.
The CDC will study a group of residents who live near the base as well as seven other locations around the country, mostly near military installations.
“The assessments will generate information about exposure to PFAS in affected communities,” said Patrick Breysse, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
The study follows similar work done last fall in Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania and Westhampton, New York. That study found that levels of one type of PFAS chemical, known as PFHxS, were more than five times higher than the national average, according to results obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Last year, a national analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists found water sources at New Jersey’s Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst had levels of toxic PFAS chemicals that were up to 24,000 times higher than a federal health limit recommendation.
Talking about these chemicals is often confusing because more than 5,000 compounds fall under the PFAS umbrella.
“We know a great deal about a very few individual compounds,” DeWitt said.
One of those compounds may be somewhat more familiar to Delaware residents.
Perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as PFOA or C8, was used by DuPont to manufacture Teflon. In 2017, the company agreed to settle more than 3,500 personal injury lawsuits that claimed the company damaged their health through the use of PFOA at its Washington Works plant in West Virginia.
DuPont agreed to split the $335 million settlement funds with Chemours, which split out of DuPont in 2015.
The compound most commonly found in firefighting foam at military bases is typically a PFOA or perfluorooctanesulfonate, known as PFOS. The lifespan of those compounds is also a cause for concern.
“These compounds tend to persist in the environment for very long periods of time. They stay in our bodies for very long periods of time,” DeWitt said.
Because the compounds are synthetic, there is no way for nature to weaken them or for the human body to break them down.
“We don’t really have an understanding of how we can help increase the rate at which they’re eliminated from our bodies,” Dewitt said. “Some of the compounds can take years. One of the longer-lived compounds can be in our bodies for eight and a half years.”
The CDC study will begin this year and continue into 2020.