Toxins at Niagara Falls airbase
The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station has landed on an ignoble list.
The facility ranks seventh on a list of the 100 U.S. military sites most contaminated with PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances.
That’s according to a report issued in early October by the Environmental Working Group, based on data procured from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense.
PFAS is a family of chemicals linked in animal studies to infertility, birth defects, developmental disorders and cancer. PFAS compounds have been used commercially in a wide variety of products since the 1950s. They include the essential ingredients in Teflon and Scotchguard, and in surfactants used to water- and stain-proof clothing, carpeting and furniture.
They’re used in adhesives and paints. They’re even in takeout food containers, pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags — anything that benefits from resisting grease.
“Some manufacturers have used them in dental floss,” said Nellie Brown, director of Workplace Health & Safety Programs at the Worker Institute, a program at Cornell University’s Industry and Labor Relations School.
The culprit at the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is a firefighting foam called AFFF — short for aqueous film-forming foam — developed by U.S. Navy in the 1960s, using PFAS chemicals manufactured by DuPont, to fight jet-fuel fires.
For decades, firefighters have employed AFFF not only to fight tough fires, but in training. The regular training exercises, in particular, have led to discharge of the PFAS-containing foams into the environment — into the air, onto the ground and into groundwater, with the attendant risks of exposure to communities surrounding the places where the foam is used.
The Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station is currently home to the 914th Air Refueling Wing. The airbase is bounded by Niagara Falls Boulevard and Porter, Packard, Walmore and Lockport Roads. It is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, commercial strips, and farmland. It shares runways with the Niagara Falls International Airport.
Groundwater from the airbase’s runways, parking lots and other impervious surfaces runs into drainage ditches. Those drainage ditches empty into Cayuga Creek, which cuts through the facility and then meanders into the Niagara River.
Through the 1990s, PFAS has been largely unregulated and unstudied — and, as a result, untested for in drinking water supplies.
The provisional maximum contaminant level set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is 70 parts per trillion. The more stringent standard set by New York State earlier this year is 10 parts per trillion.
The EWG study pegged the PFAS contamination at the Niagara Falls airbase as high as 1,300,000 parts per trillion.
Putting out fires
The use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam has led to direct, frequent exposure to firefighters, military and civilian. Two generations of them.
One of those is Jason Ashton of Victor, New York, outside Rochester. Ashton is a firefighter who served in the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Navy. He was stationed at the Niagara Falls airbase from 1996 to 2005.
Ashton told Investigative Post that his department tested its hoses and tanks every morning — not for long, just a few seconds — spraying water and foam on the ground. On weekends, civilian fire departments used the airbase equipment and its supply of AFFF for training.
Everywhere Ashton has been stationed, every step of his firefighting career, he has worked with AFFF and even more hazardous firefighting substances, like high-expansion and alcohol-resistant foams.
“If you worked with firefighting foam, you were exposed,” Ashton said. “It’s a given.”
According to Department of Defense documents that contributed to EWG’s analysis, most of the contamination at the Niagara Falls airbase occurred at the western end of one runway, on a site where firefighters train to put out jet-fuel fires. (The shell of a jet is set ablaze, then firefighters put it out.) But, over the years, there were also leaks and spills at various locations at the airbase. At a 1985 air show, the Navy’s Blue Angels suffered a fatal midair collision. The flaming debris was extinguished with AFFF.
In 2016, reacting to mounting clinical evidence about the dangers of PFAS contamination nationwide, the Department of Defense began to address the decades-old problem at the Niagara Falls airbase and hundreds of other military sites across the country. It tested on-site drinking water for PFAS. It inventoried past use, leaks, and spills. It put in controls and monitoring intended to prevent contaminated groundwater from migrating offsite, where it might impact public drinking water.
The Department of Defense also put a stop to training with AFFF. And it created protocols for the use of AFFF in the case of emergency: If AFFF is used to fight a fire, it’s now treated as a hazardous waste spill.
What the Defense Department has not done is communicate with residents in the neighborhoods surrounding the Niagara Falls airbase. Spokespeople for the base told Investigative Post in a statement that the department has determined there was no need to do public outreach, as it had determined there was no immediate threat to public drinking water supplies.
Nor has the Defense Department articulated plans to study or address the long-term health impacts to thousands of firefighters who trained there.
Asked if he felt that Defense Department ought to do that, Ashton replied, “Sure, but it’s too late.”
“Firefighters are dying of cancer,” he continued. “Sometime down the road, maybe in the next 10 years, I’ll get cancer, too.”
Long-lasting and dangerous
Manufacturers of these chemicals — primarily 3M, DuPont and a spinoff company called Chemours — have known about the dangers posed by PFAS for 60 years.
The companies’ own internal documents, many made public as the result of lawsuits, prove that. The Defense Department knew, too, according to some of the same documents.
But regulatory agencies somehow didn’t, even though people who were exposed to PFAS have been getting sick since the compounds were introduced into the marketplace.
The first to suffer the effects of exposure were workers at 3M and DuPont. Then came people in communities surrounding the plants where they were manufactured. Then came people in communities around facilities where they were used, including military installations like the Niagara Falls airbase.
Currently, more than 100 lawsuits involving attributed to firefighting foam have been consolidated before one court in South Carolina. Numerous states attorney general and individuals have filed suits against manufacturers of PFAS chemicals, as well.
In 2002, 3M voluntarily phased out production of two of its most lucrative PFAS compounds, both of which are present in firefighting foam. DuPont did the same, and spun off the Chemours company to take over its PFAS business — and all its present and future liabilities.
“Phasing out doesn’t mean they’re going to take products off the shelf,” Dr. Joseph Gardella, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at the University at Buffalo, told Investigative Post. “They’re just not going to use specific additives in manufacturing anymore.”
Since 2016, the military has begun looking for alternatives to AFFF. So far, however, that search has largely been directed to other PFAS-containing foams.
That’s a common strategy, according to David Anderson, Ph.D, one of the authors of the EWG report. As compounds in the PFAS family are identified as dangerous, the manufacturers of the chemicals and their customers substitute other PFAS compounds with similar qualities — and similar risks — that haven’t yet flagged as toxic threats.
One of the PFAS compounds in firefighting foams, for example, has been phased out of production. To take its place, DuPont developed a compound called GenX, which DuPont described as “a new industry standard for sustainable replacement technology.”
But, as Anderson noted in a recent article, GenX is a PFAS compound, too. And the EPA’s draft toxicity assessment for GenX found its to be substantially more potent than the compound it was meant to replace.
The PFAS family is so large—numbering in the thousands, with more than 600 in active commercial use—that our current regulatory framework is woefully inadequate to assess the safety of each compound satisfactorily, especially in the absence of comprehensive toxicity data.
As a result, Anderson argues, PFAS should be regulated — and perhaps even banned for commercial use — as a family, rather than compound by compound.
In a separate study, EWG analyzed data from more than 1,000 public water systems and concluded that PFAS were present in the drinking water of 110 million Americans.
Western New York’s public water supplies were not among the systems EWG analyzed.
However, the Niagara Falls airbase isn’t the only regional source of PFAS contamination. Firefighting foams have been used and are currently stored at civilian fire departments and airports throughout Western New York, according to a survey conducted in 2017 by the New York State Department of Conservation. It’s been used by local manufacturers, too. And PFAS-containing consumer products are certainly present in local landfills.
“I think it’s an incredible concern everywhere,” Anderson told Investigative Post. “This contamination is going to be present for decades, and it’s going to be migrating.”
The “forever chemicals”
Because they don’t break down easily, PFAS have been nicknamed the “forever chemicals.” They persist in the environment — in our landfills, in our drinking water, in our bodies.
“They’ve ended up being found in just about every human tissue,”said Brown, of Cornell’s Worker Institute. “They’ve been found in the brain, they’ve been found in the placenta.”
Studies by the Centers for Disease Control found PFAS in the bodies of every person tested. And animal studies indicate that PFAS are endocrine disruptors — a designation that didn’t even exist when they first began to be introduced into the environment.
“They disrupt some of the delicate control mechanisms and the processes for just about everything that goes on in the human body,” Brown said.
According to the EPA, human epidemiology conducted for two of the most we’ll studied PFAS compounds indicate that exposure can cause high cholesterol, increased liver enzymes, decreased vaccination response, thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, and testicular and kidney cancer.
Firefighters like Ashton and his colleagues, the chemicals in firefighting foams are just one in a host of occupational hazards.
“Firefighters actually have a fairly high level of exposure to a variety of carcinogens. [AFFF] is really only one,” Brown said.
Brown notes that buildings are constructed and furnished with all sorts of synthetic materials.
“When they’re subjected to high heat, they break down to generate a variety of toxic results,” Brown said.
In the last two decades, Brown noted, New York State has recognized the health hazards particular to firefighters by adopting laws that establish certain cancers as work-related, for the purposes of insurance and disability claims.
“Our union pushes hard for these cancer bills because we know that exposure to fires, to the smoke and the chemicals the fire produces — it causes cancer,” Ashton said.
Waiting on the EPA
Gardella, the UB chemist, has spent his career working with and studying the compounds that make up the PFAS family. He is serving his second three-year term on the EPA’s Science Advisory Council. He says regulatory agencies have been playing catch-up, as more and more cases of PFAS contamination surface across the country.
“There’s an old nostrum in the field of analytical chemistry: If you don’t look for it, you won’t find it,” Gardella said.
Gardella says EPA staff is pushing hard toward a conclusion on PFAS. But there’s a lot to untangle: Even now, regulatory agencies don’t know for sure how many of these toxic chemicals have been cranked out for commercial use.
“When you say ‘PFAS,’ we don’t even know the scope of what that means, and it can be very confusing,” Gardella said. “[Regulatory agencies] are still developing the actual tests that can detect these compounds.”
According to spokespeople for the airbase, the Department of Defense will formulate a cleanup plan when the EPA determines maximum contamination levels and remediation standards for PFAs. Those standards could be determined next year, or the year after that — the timetable is uncertain.
EPA has yet to classify PFAS as a “priority pollutant,” Gardella told Investigative Post. That designation would unlock funding that could accelerate the studies needed to arrive at a regulatory scheme.
Some states aren’t waiting on federal regulations. This summer, New York set maximum standards for PFAS in drinking water: 10 parts per trillion, or about 10 drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Testing protocols and mandates for public drinking water should be in place next year. And some local and state agencies — as well as at least one federal agency, the US Geological Survey — are already testing drinking water for PFAS in selected regions of New York State.
A spokesperson for the City of Niagara Falls Water Board told Investigative Post the board currently does not test for PFAS chemicals in the city’s drinking water. The Niagara County Water Board said it has done some limited testing for PFAS, and its director says his facility is preparing — and figuring out how to budget for — new, more expansive testing protocols in 2020.
The ubiquity and long-lasting nature of PFAS contamination has lent the current discussion about the problem a cataclysmic tone. It’s been called “this generation’s DDT.”
Cornell’s Nellie Brown offers some reason for hope.
“Some followup studies have shown that discontinuance of manufacturing some of these materials has resulted, over time, in a decrease of incidences,” she said.
“If we were to decide that we don’t want to use some of these [compounds] anymore, we will see gradually over time that they will disappear from our bodies,” she said. “But we have to decide that.”