The pillowy white foam was known to be an effective suppressant, blanketing raging fires with cooling chemicals. For years, firefighters at Fort Worth’s Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base would spray the foam in a number of emergency and non-emergency situations — from plane crashes, to smaller fires, to training exercises.
But in the early 2000s, the dangers of aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, began to emerge within the medical community. The foam, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, is one of several products that can contain potentially harmful perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). The chemicals can seep into the ground, and even contaminate the groundwater.
The U.S. Navy has been grappling with its past as it begins testing drinking water near air stations around the country, according to Tread Kissam, a Navy hydrogeologist. And that means taking a look at Fort Worth’s base.
The Navy hasn’t yet tested the groundwater on-site, Kissam said, but wants to be “proactive” and investigate the possible impact of AFFF on drinking water serving nearby homes. There’s a small section of homes that are located down-gradient from the base within a 1-mile radius that could be susceptible to contamination, Kissam said.
Anyone who lives in that designated area who relies on a private drinking well can request the Navy test its drinking water for the presence of damaging perfluoroalkyl substances. The Navy has conducted testing at five homes so far, Kissam said, and results are pending.
If the Navy finds an amount of PFAS that surpasses the EPA’s lifetime healthy advisory — 70 parts per trillion, either individually or combined — it will provide the homeowners with bottled water until they have a reliable source.
“We’re asking if you have a private drinking water well, we’d like to test it,” Kissam said during an open house on the testing Tuesday evening inside Burton Hill Elementary School. “We’re going off-base first, looking at private drinking water wells to make sure the neighbors of Naval Air Station Fort Worth are not drinking water over the lifetime health advisory.”
Two specific types of PFAS chemicals — PFOA and PFOS — are of particular concern given how common they are, according to the EPA. Aside from their presence in AFFF foam, PFOA and PFOS have been found in carpets, clothing, pizza boxes, microwave popcorn packaging and cookware.
The Navy is only testing residents’ private water wells because the City of Fort Worth is responsible for its own testing. Although cities aren’t required to inspect their drinking water for PFAS — the contaminants aren’t regulated — the Fort Worth Water Department conducted tests in 2013 and 2014, according to Mary Gugliuzza, a spokesperson for the department.
“There were about five PFOS-specific chemicals on that testing required. And so we did do 20 samples over the course of a year — four from each of our five drinking water treatment plants,” said Gugliuzza, who was at the open house Tuesday. “And we did not get any detects.”
The EPA’s advisory is just that — an advisory — and isn’t enforceable, Kissam said. The EPA says most U.S. residents have been exposed to PFOS or PFOA due to how frequently they were used in consumer products.
However, between 2000 and 2002, the main manufacturer of the chemicals in the U.S. phased them out of production. And the health community has approached PFAS chemicals with the emerging knowledge they pose possible adverse health effects.
Research is still in its early stages, according to the Navy, but studies have shown PFAS can affect growth, learning and behavior of children; lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant; interfere with hormones and the immune system; and increase the risk of certain types of cancer. Also, expecting mothers exposed to PFAS can pass the substances onto their unborn baby, and later transfer them in breast milk.
Jerry Wood, 67, and his wife, Virginia Wood, 65, live in White Settlement about a mile and a half away from the air base, and use city water but also have a private well on their property. They don’t use that well much anymore, they said, but still wanted to find out if they were impacted.
They’re on the west side of the air base, on the opposite side of the down-gradient carrying groundwater east.
The determination from Navy officials was that they’re in the clear, and they went home feeling a little more at ease.
“I think anybody would want to know that their drinking water is as chemical-free as possible,” Jerry Wood said. “I feel like I have better peace of mind.”
PFAS testing in Fort Worth
Navy hydrogeologists, poring over historical records of the Fort Worth air station, sought to make a map with areas where there could be PFAS contamination. They found 23.
The spots cover the whole air station, providing a glimpse into the history of the Naval base that was founded in the 1940s and was used for training during World War II. They include an area at the far north of the base where a plane crashed; training centers and hangars throughout the property; and an area in the southern end where another plane crashed.
The fear, Kissam said, is PFAS seeping into the soil and the groundwater, which can carry the chemicals to drinking water sources. The Navy is seeking to find out whether or not this has happened in Fort Worth to a degree impacting local residents.
It sent informational mailers to homes that fell in the vulnerable area within a mile of the air station, Kissam said.
For those eligible people who sign up for testing, up to three professionals will come to the house and collect water from the well and the ground. They will then perform tests measuring the level of PFAS.
People will learn of results within about 30 days, according to the Navy. The testing period will be about two weeks, until mid-October.
“And then if somebody calls us down the road, we’ll certainly re-evaluate,” said Susan Brink, a Navy spokesperson at the event Tuesday evening.
There were 34 local residents at the event on Tuesday, Kissam said.
The Navy hopes to begin on-site testing of groundwater at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in 2020.
How to sign up for testing
Testing is only open to those who live within the designated zone within a mile of the air base, and who also have a private well.
Those who wish to inquire about testing or sign up can call 833-397-3778.
© 2019 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.