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Study: Chemicals From Firefighting Foam In Drinking Water

iStock image - UC Berkeley / Courtesy

Some firefighting foam contains carcinogens that have been found to contaminate drinking water supplies around some military bases and industrial sites, according to a new study by UC Berkeley and Harvard Univeristy researchers.

iStock image - UC Berkeley / Courtesy

A study by UC Berkeley and Harvard University researchers finds a firefighting foam containing highly fluorinated chemicals is contaminating drinking water supplies around many of the nation's military bases, airports and industrial sites.

In humans, the chemicals have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, and obesity.

Study co-author Arlene Blum says 6 million or more people may be drinking water contaminated with the highly fluorinated chemicals, including people in California's Central Valley. 

"The ones that we're finding the most of are used in firefighting foams used for practices at military bases and airports," says Blum, who is a visiting scholar in the Department of Chemistry at UC Berkeley. "Turns out fluorinated chemicals are pretty good at putting out oil and gas fires."

But she says the toxic chemicals end up in drinking water. 

"There are a lot of practices where huge volumes of these chemicals are washed into the bay, rivers, lakes, drinking water supplies," says Blum. 

Blum, founding director of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley, says the chemicals should not be used for training. She says there are far more training exercises when the toxic foam is used compared to the actual number of real emergencies. 

"My hope is that the military and airports will be looking very seriously for alternatives that are not fluorinated," says Blum. 

The study, in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, was based on levels of contaminants in drinking water measured in EPA’s Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR3) study, according to a UC Berkeley news release.

These measurements suggest that at least six million people have drinking water that exceeds the recent EPA health advisory levels for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS).

"Our results point to the need for the EPA to enact enforceable regulations to protect the health of the millions of Americans being exposed to PFAS in their drinking water," says study co-author Thomas Bruton, a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Another study by Harvard researchers appearing in the Aug. 9 issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives connects early life exposure to fluorinated chemicals to reduced immune responses that persist into adolescence.

A recent study in the same population found that mothers with higher exposures to these substances were capable of breastfeeding their children a shorter time span, perhaps due to adverse effects on hormonal functions.