BRUNSWICK, Maine — The contamination of children by a potentially hazardous chemical at a former Air Force base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, has raised concerns about the possibility of a similar problem in Brunswick.
The children and other residents in Portsmouth drank tainted water from a well on the former Pease Air Force Base, according to health officials there.
The well was voluntarily closed in May 2014 after the chemicals were discovered.
A New Hampshire epidemiologist announced Sept. 9 at a meeting at the site that the children tested had levels of perflourinated chemicals in their blood 10 times higher than in children not exposed to the contaminated water.
The Environmental Protection Agency lists perflourinated chemicals, or PFCs, as a “contaminant of emerging concern.” In lab tests on animals, the chemicals have been shown to cause developmental problems.
Historically, PFCs have been used for commercial and industrial purposes, such as non-stick coating on cookware and fire retardant.
Officials believe the well in Portsmouth was contaminated by a type of fire-fighting foam used to put out flames on the runway.
Similar foam was used at several locations at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station.
PFC contamination has been recorded at levels above the EPA’s provisional health advisory, a number derived from lab tests on animals, at several places on the base, according to a draft report by the Navy’s closure program.
Many of these areas are associated with historic use of the PFC-containing fire-fighting foam. The report’s authors found contaminated groundwater at the former fire department building and the foam storage building at levels above the EPA’s health advisory.
Scientists also found high concentrations of PFC in areas around the airplane runway and between hangers.
On Sept. 4, geologist Carol White, on behalf of the group Brunswick Area Citizens for a Safe Environment, wrote to the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure program criticizing its proposed plan to deal with the groundwater contamination.
In it, she called the Navy’s draft land use control plan “misleading,” because it “indicates only a few distinct areas where groundwater is contaminated.”
“Other areas … are also known to be contaminated,” she said. “And the continued migration of contaminants through the groundwater is likely.”
White and the citizens group recommend a base-wide groundwater restriction, so no current or future tenants on the former base could drill a well into potentially contaminated water.
“It just makes sense,” said David Page, a former Bowdoin College chemistry professor who serves on the base’s Restoration Advisory Board.
“We don’t know where contaminated bodies of groundwater will be 20, 30 years from now,” he said. “We want to make sure that future tenants and future owners of property there don’t do things that could affect their health, like drilling a well.”
Both he and White noted that simply implementing individual deed restrictions on groundwater, as the Navy is currently proposing, has failed in Portsmouth.
“Having a base-wide groundwater restriction just kind of takes that whole thing off the table,” Page said.
Staff from the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure program did not respond to requests for comment. A call to the EPA’s project manager for the site was also not returned.
Dr. Benjamin Chan, a state epidemiologist who helped organize the blood testing in New Hampshire, cautioned that the science is still not conclusive on the toxicity of PFCs.
“We just don’t know … that’s part of the hard part,” he said. “Some studies have shown … certain health outcomes (that) other studies have not shown.”
Most Americans have some PFCs in their blood, Chan said, because the chemicals are used in everything from furniture upholstery to fast-food wrappers.
“The general message is that there is a lot of science being done,” he said. “But nothing conclusively tells us if health effects are linked to PFCs and certainly not at what level in the blood should we be concerned about health effects.”
Nevertheless, the Brunswick residents want the Navy to take precautions to eliminate the risk of contamination.
“(Luckily), most of the base is currently on town water,” Carol Warren, a member of BACSE, said Sept. 11. “But there is no rule, at all, saying that any new building needs to use town water.”
“That’s one of the things we would like to see,” she said.
The groundwater controls will be discussed at the next rehabilitation advisory board meeting, Sept. 17 at 4:30 p.m. at the Fairfield Inn in Brunswick. That meeting is open to the public.
The former Brunswick Naval Air Station has been listed as a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site since 1987. It is now being redeveloped for civilian use as Brunswick Landing by the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority.