Health

Defense bill could lead to more regulation of chemicals in some SoCal drinking water

Old jet hangers at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine. The base was designated a Superfund hazardous waste site in 1990. After a major cleanup effort to mitigate groundwater and soil contamination, much of the base was removed from the Superfund list in 2014.
Old jet hangers at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station in Irvine. The base was designated a Superfund hazardous waste site in 1990. After a major cleanup effort to mitigate groundwater and soil contamination, much of the base was removed from the Superfund list in 2014.
Chris Carlson/AP

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Tucked inside the $700 billion defense bill Congress has sent to President Trump is a small item that may lead to tougher regulation of some chemicals that have shown up in Southern California’s water supplies.

The legislation sets aside $7 million for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test the long-term health effects of "highly fluorinated compounds" in drinking water, including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS), which together are referred to as PFASs.

These compounds were long found in household goods - used for things like making cookware nonstick and jackets waterproof.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says research has indicated that the chemicals may cause cancer and other health problems.

Over the past decade, manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Japan voluntarily phased out PFASs.

"However they are still manufactured abroad," said Tom Bruton of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley. He was the co-author of a letter sent to members of Congress urging them to include the CDC testing in the defense bill.

For years, military bases and civilian airports have used the chemicals in firefighting foam because they're effective against fuel fires, although that is in the process of changing.

"Much of the firefighting foam stock that the military has had at its bases has been old [PFAS] stock," Bruton said. "Right now the military’s in the process of phasing all those out."

In a 2016 analysis, Harvard and Berkeley researchers found the highest levels of PFASs in watersheds near military bases, industrial sites and wastewater treatment plants.

In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory suggesting the safe level for PFASs in drinking water was no higher than 70 parts per trillion. This prompted five Southern California water districts to shut down wells in Anaheim, Orange, Corona, Riverside County and Pico Rivera last year because of elevated PFAS levels.

"The water they’ve served since then and today is below the EPA health advisory level," said Jason Dadakis, executive director of water quality and technical resources for the Orange County Water District.

Currently, the EPA’s advisory doesn't mandate action, so water districts are dealing with these chemicals voluntarily.

"All the utilities that had detections have continued this monitoring on a proactive level to assure their customers they will not serve water above the health advisory," Dadakis said.

The Orange County Water District says it’s in regular communication with each military base in the county to keep track of several long-term environmental cleanup efforts surrounding Department of Defense facilities.

Dadakis called the Pentagon a "good partner" in the effort to monitor drinking water.

In Riverside County, the Eastern Municipal Water District took one well offline last year due to elevated PFAS levels. The agency said nearby March Air Reserve Base was identified as the source of the chemicals.

The Eastern Municipal Water District has an agreement with the Defense Department to fund well-site treatment to bring it back into compliance with EPA recommendations, said district spokesman Kevin Pearson. He added that the Pentagon is also covering the cost difference between the tainted groundwater supply and the water the agency needs to buy and import from the Metropolitan Water District.   

The money set aside in the defense spending bill would identify eight communities with current or former military installations where PFASs have been detected and study the human health effects of exposure to the chemicals in drinking water and groundwater.

Advocates hope new data from the Pentagon-funded CDC research could trigger stronger federal regulation of PFASs down the line.

"There is a lot that is yet to be known," said Bruton. "It's not easy to learn about these compounds."

He added: "It's very encouraging that there was bipartisan support for these measures. Fortunately, clean water is not really a partisan issue, like so many things are."