The Air Force Academy on Wednesday said tests have shown private wells south of the base do not appear to be contaminated with unhealthy levels of toxic chemicals from firefighting foam used for decades at the military school.
The academy’s announcement comes as Air Force officials work to understand the extent of a decades-long contamination issue tied to their use of a firefighting foam laced with perfluorinated compounds. The chemicals are prized for their remarkably strong molecular bonds, which make them useful in extinguishing petroleum fires, as well as in a host of household items, such as nonstick cookware, carpet cleaners and fast-food wrappers.
Aaron Termain, environmental health services division director for El Paso County Public Health, called the results “good news” for affected residents.
But, the leader of a local water advocacy group ripped the academy for not being completely transparent with its neighboring residents.
The academy needs to share results for “everything they tested — otherwise, they’re hiding information,” said Liz Rosenbaum, leader of the Fountain Valley Clean Water Coalition. She said that’s all the more important as health concerns mount over the broad array of toxic chemicals found in the foam, and that have escaped federal oversight.
“If the Air Force has already spent the money to have the testing done, it doesn’t cost them any more money to release the results,” Rosenbaum said.
In August, the academy said it found four sites on school grounds contaminated by unhealthy levels of the chemicals, which have been linked to a host of health ailments, including multiple cancers and liver disease .
The discovery of the chemicals called into question the safety of private wells south of the academy in the Woodmen Valley and Thunderbird Estates neighborhoods. More than three-dozen wells were feared contaminated.
On Wednesday, academy officials said preliminary tests on the wells believed to be at risk of contamination came back as being below the Environmental Protection Agency’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion. The advisory applies solely to two types of the chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS.
In the vast majority of the wells, PFOA and PFOS were not even detected, according to the academy.
Even so, uncertainty lingered after Wednesday’s announcement.
Officials are still awaiting follow-up tests on a few of the wells to confirm those results, said Michael Kucharek, an academy spokesman.
Also, residents were not provided with test results for 16 additional types of perfluorinated compounds that the Air Force tested for at each well, according to the academy.
Thousands of types of perfluorianted compounds exist, and researchers are only just beginning to understand their health impacts.
The chemicals also go by the more inclusive name of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. And already, several varieties not included in the EPA’s health advisory have been linked to health ailments — leading clean water advocates to push for stricter oversight and protections.
That’s especially true for a variety of perfluorinated compounds that some researchers say appears associated with the toxic firefighting foam: PFHxS.
About 20 miles south of the academy — in the Security, Widefield and Fountain areas where drinking water contamination was linked to foam used at Peterson Air Force Base — that type of chemical was the most commonly found perfluorinated compound in residents’ bloodstreams, according to a study spearheaded by the Colorado School of Public Health.
A report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggested PFHxS could cause liver damage and a decreased ability to respond to vaccines. There also is a possibility that it could lead to early menopause, the agency said.
A call to the Air Force Civil Engineer Center for comment was not immediately returned.
The toxic firefighting foam was used from the 1970s through the 1990s for firefighting training exercises. It also was dispensed during periodic testing through 2005, the academy says. It has since been phased out in favor of a new foam that the Air Force has said is more environmentally friendly, despite containing a different type of perfluorinated compound.
Perfluorinated chemicals are made from one of the strongest chemical bonds known to science, and people can live their entire lives without completely ridding themselves of the chemicals. As a result, the compounds have earned the nickname “forever chemicals.”
For example, the half-life the chemicals listed in the EPA’s health advisory — the time it takes the body to rid itself of half the chemicals — ranges from 2 to 5½ years. The half-life of PFHxS is 8½ years.
On Wednesday, Rosenbaum voiced concern about the chemicals’ health impacts on long-term residents who lived there when the toxic foam was still used.
“Maybe levels aren’t that high now, but they might have been critically high 15 years ago, before they stopped using the foams,” Rosenbaum said.
“And these chemicals bioaccumulate and stick in your bodies for a really long time, even if you cut off the source of the exposure.”
The Air Force Academy is conducting an expanded site inspection, and it plans to release a more in-depth report on the contamination issue at the base in 2020.