Delaware has some of the nation’s highest concentrations of the toxic chemical C8 in its water supplies, in some cases exceeding levels found near Parkersburg, West Virginia.
But DuPont isn’t the likely culprit here.
Environmental studies and experts, including Delaware’s Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances, Artesian Water and New Castle County officials, almost unanimously say the cause of the contamination is fire firefighting materials used at two air bases.
“We’ve tied it back to the firefighting foam,” said Tim Ratsep, of Delaware’s Division of Waste and Hazardous Substances. “Everything we have found so far does not indicate a release from any DuPont operations.”
Since signs point to causes other than DuPont for the C8 contamination, a company spokesman did not feel it was appropriate to comment.
Perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly referred to as PFOA, and its sister compound, perfluorooctane sulfoante, or PFOS, were discovered two years ago in the groundwater at Dover Air Force Base and near New Castle County Airport. The levels of the perfluorinated chemicals, better known as C8, found in wells near those locations rise far above the threshold recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for short-term human exposure to the contaminants.
Contamination was detected in five wells near New Castle County Airport exposing more than 4,700 area residents over a two-year period to the chemical.
High levels of the toxic chemicals have been linked to several illnesses including testicular and kidney cancers. However, since Delaware’s PFOA and PFOS contamination was only discovered in 2014, it will not be clear for some time how the contamination is impacting residents’ health.
“People don’t cancer get at a rapid rate,” said Alan Ducatman, chair of the community medicine department at West Virginia University’s medical school. “You have to start following a lot of people over time.”
EPA testing conducted in July 2014 found three wells in the City of New Castle had PFOA levels of 0.13 ppb, 0.094 ppb and 0.44 ppb and PFOS levels of 0.91 ppb, 0.82 ppb and 2.3 ppb. In Dover, tests revealed that a localized area of the Air Force Base had PFOS levels of 270 ppb and PFOA levels of 20 ppb.
The EPA Provisional Health Advisory for the chemicals said the maximum levels humans can safely be exposed to in drinking water is 0.2 ppb for PFOS and 0.4 ppb for PFOA.
Along the Ohio River near Parkersburg is some of the world’s worst PFOA contamination. The levels of PFOA discovered in that region’s water districts is lower than levels reported at the Air Force Base. Little Hocking, Ohio, for example had a PFOA level of 3.30 ppb, according to a 2005 EPA report. Another water system in Lubeck, Ohio, had PFOA levels of 3.20 ppb.
C8 has been linked to thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, testicular and kidney cancers and pregnancy-induced hypertension and pre-eclampsia.
The most recent data from the Delaware Department of Health and Human Services shows kidney cancer rates in Kent and New Castle counties, home to the two airfields, exceed the national average of 15.5 cases per 100,000 residents. Kent County has the state’s highest incident of kidney cancer at 20.3 cases per 100,000 and New Castle County’s kidney cancer rate is 16.4 cases per 100,000 residents. Sussex County where no PFOAs or PFOSs have been discovered, had a cancer rate of 14.7 cases per 100,000.
“PFOA attaches itself to the liver, followed by the blood, followed by the kidney,” said Ducatman. “It hits what we call our nuclear receptors.”
Among all forms of cancer, Delaware’s mortality rate between 2007 and 2011 was 184.2 cases 100,000, 6 percent higher than the national average of 173.8 cases per 100,000.
“Within DHSS we pay attention to health studies and what results we have in our database that might be relevant,” said Ed Hallock, head of DHSS’ Office of Drinking Water. No studies have yet linked Delaware’s cancer rates to C8 contamination. “Hopefully, we can’t tie it back to the water.”
Scientists say that just about everyone one Earth has traces of C8 in their bloodstream.
Delaware isn’t the only state battling PFOA issues. Three governors — New York’s Andrew Cuomo, Vermont’s Peter Shumlin and New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan — jointly authored a letter to EPA Administer Gina McCarthy. All three are dealing with PFOA-related compounds in public drinking water supplies.
“It is clear that PFOA contamination is not a state or regional problem — it’s a national problem that requires federal guidelines and a consistent, science-based approach,” the letter stated.
Just across the Delaware River in Salem, New Jersey, sits Chambers Works, a former DuPont facility where Teflon was invented in 1938 and produced for many years. Chambers Works was transferred to Chemours as part of that company’s spin off from DuPont last July and stopped Teflon production there.
A group of Salem County residents filed a 2009 class-action lawsuit against DuPont claiming PFOA use at the plant tainted local drinking water. DuPont settled the case in 2011 for $8.3 million and admitted no wrongdoing. The company said at the time that settlement funds would be used to give members of the class-action suit the option of receiving a water filtration system or receiving the cash equivalent.
In 2007, a New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection report found PFOA levels in one Salem County well as high as 0.19 ppb. Of the 28 Salem County wells tested for the report, four came back with no traces of PFOA and nine were detected to have levels too low to quantify.
DuPont has taken steps to eliminate the contamination around the Chambers Works plant, phasing out its use of PFOA at the site and around the world in 2013. The Environmental Working Group, which tracks PFOA contamination by state and county, said no PFOAs have been detected in Salem County as of 2015.
Chemours spokeswoman Janet Smith said the company routinely monitors the groundwater near Chambers Works to ensure “protection and regulatory compliance.” She said the company works closely with the EPA and state regulatory agencies to ensure it is following environmental guidelines. Chemours has never made or used PFOA since its launch last year.
If PFOAs from Chambers Works leaked into the Delaware River it would not impact the state’s drinking water because there is no water system in Delaware that takes water directly from the river, Hallock said.
The culprit in Delaware, according to EPA studies, appears to be firefighting foam. Aqueous Film-Forming Foam, or AFFF, became popular with the military and some civilian fire departments for its ability to smother fires from combustible liquids such as jet fuel and petroleum.
AFFF contains PFOS and another formulation of the foam purchased by the Department of Defense contains compounds that can break down into PFOA.
3M manufactured PFOS-based AFFFs, but began to phase out using the toxic substance in its foam in 2002. Today, most firefighting foams contain neither PFOS nor PFOA in their original form, but can still break down into PFOA.
An EPA fact sheet on C8, released in December 2015, directly links the chemicals to the firefighting foam at Dover Air Force Base. A July 2014 fact sheet regarding the PFOA and PFOS levels around New Castle County Airport, however, does not provide a cause. State and local officials said they understand the New Castle PFOA and PFOS levels are related to foam used at the airport.
“We have heard it is firefighting foam, but the investigation hasn’t been concluded by the EPA,” said Pamela A. Patone, general manager for the Municipal Services Commission for the city of New Castle. “I can’t comment on what the EPA will do.”
The Delaware Air National Guard stationed at New Castle County Airport still has AFFF on base, but has not used it since 2009, according to National Guard spokesman, Lt. Col. Len Gratteri.
Gratteri said the Air Guard is assisting with groundwater analysis and collaborating with the EPA and DNREC to determine possible sources of contamination.
In New Castle, city officials installed a carbon granulated water filtration system near the Airport in November to serve its 2,200 customers. The system is similar to the ones installed at the six water districts near Parkersburg that were impacted by PFOA contamination.
Patone said the contaminated wells were shut down after the toxic chemicals were discovered, but have reopened since the filters were put in place. While the wells were shut down, the city bought water from Artesian Water Supply. The filter and water purchases have cost the city of New Castle $1.2 million.
The city regularly samples water from those wells.
“The only way to truly gauge the effectiveness of the treatment system is to test our water before it goes through the carbon filtration system and test if after it has been treated,” said Jay Guyer, water supervisor for the city’s Municipal Services Commission.
Guyer said the system removes PFOA and PFOS after treatment, but prior to filtration chemical levels remain higher than the EPA’s recommended guidelines.
“It hasn’t gone down,” Patone said of the water’s PFOA and PFOS levels prior to filtration.
Questions about how much longer PFOA and PFOS will remain in the wells linger. The chemicals do not degrade in water. According to data from the EPA, the half-life of POFA and PFOS in water is 92 years and 41 years, respectively.
“Is the contamination slowing going away?” Patone asked. “These are questions we’ve asked as part of the thought process to be prepared in the future, but we don’t have the answers to that.”
Artesian Water Co. shut two commercial wells in New Castle in June 2014 after PFOS was detected. Combined, the two wells serve 2,500 customers.
One of the wells, located in the Jefferson Farms neighborhood, returned online several months ago after the utility company spent roughly $1 million to install a carbon filtration system. The latest testing of untreated water at Jefferson Farms revealed PFOS levels ranging from .10 ppb to .59 ppb.
The subdivision, Wilmington Manor, has not been sampled since January of 2014 when it went offline. Joseph A. DiNunnzio, Artesian’s senior vice president, said the last reading showed PFOS levels ranging from .93 to 1.8.
A second well in Wilmington Manor remains out of service. DiNunnzio said the well will go back online once a filter is installed. He expects the filtration system to be installed within the next year or so.
“Because it is not a large water supply, there is not a sense of urgency,” he said.
The carbon filter’s cost has been passed on to Artesian’s customers, an amount DiNunnzio estimates to be a couple of pennies a month for each customer. Once the responsible party is conclusively identified, he said, Artesian will pursue efforts to be reimbursed for expenses related to the filter.
“We are really interested in the EPA finishing the work to identify the responsible party or parties so they can pay to treat or remove the substance they placed into our supply,” he said. “It is a cost that should not be borne by our customers.”
DiNunnzio said he agreed with those in the state pointing at the National Guard’s use of firefighting foam.
“I consider the National Guard the prime suspect, but it is important that the EPA conducts the proper analysis and review,” he said. “You don’t want to call someone guilty until you have the evidence to prove it.”
The Department of Defense this month announced it will test 665 military installations nationwide where fire or crash training using AFFF occurred, including Dover Air Force Base. Established in 1941, the base is home to the 436th Airlift Wing and the 512th Airlift Wing and the busiest air freight terminal in the Department of Defense. A force of about 11,100 is stationed there.
Dover City Manager Scott Koenig said the EPA tested the city’s public water systems in December 2014 and, again, in July 2015. He said the testing did not discover any PFOA or PFOS in the drinking supply.
The Air Force Base uses its own water systems and does not feed into or take water from the city’s public water utilities.
Dover Air Force Base transitioned to an AFFF product that does not contain PFOS prior to 2012, according to base spokesman, Master Sargent Jeremy Larlee. He said all firefighting foams used at the base are in compliance with EPA guidelines for these products.
Larlee said the Air Force is currently working with EPA and state regulators to investigate contamination at Dover Air Force Base. In addition, the Air Force is investigating installations where PFOS and PFOA may have been released to assess the potential for human exposure and, if necessary, take action to protect human health, according to Larlee.
Ratsep said PFOA and PFOS exposure is limited to the areas surrounding the two airports.
“There has not been any other areas in the state that we’ve found as a potential source,” he said.