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‘Dire Health Effects’: Local Group Seeks Strict Regulation of Firefighting-foam Chemicals

Tim Ellis/KUAC

A toxic-chemical expert told a group in Fairbanks Monday that perflourinated compounds that have contaminated groundwater around some Fairbanks and Eielson Air Force Base-area neighborhoods pose a serious, long-term threat to human health. Organizers of the meeting say they hope to convince state and federal regulators to set more stringent standards for the chemical compounds.

Alaskans may soon be hearing a lot more about the two chemical compounds that showed up in groundwater tests conducted last year in the community just outside Eielson Air Force Base.

Moose Creek was the first site, and then the other sites came to light more recently,” says Pam Miller, executive director of Anchorage-based Alaska Community Action on Toxics. “And, y’know, I think we’re just beginning to see the extent of the problem, beginning here in Fairbanks.”

Miller told about 40 people who turned out Monday night for a meeting at the Noel Wien Library that she expects to hear about more communities around the state discovering the chemical compounds better known by their acronyms PFOA and PFOS in their groundwater.

“I think we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg,” she said in an interview before her talk.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
About 40 people were present at the beginning of Monday night's meeting. A WATER spokesperson said by the end of the presentation, a total of 58 people has showed up.

Miller says the Defense Department is studying 28 military sites scattered around Alaska for the presence of PFOA and PFOS. Pentagon officials said in 2014 they’d test for the substances at firefighter-training facilities at Fort Wainwright and Fort Greely, as well as two burn pits at Greely, and an old Navy site near Utqiagvik, formerly known as Barrow. They’re among 664 military sites nationwide that’ll be studied.  

“It’s estimated in the U.S. that there are more than 6.5 million people now affected by this contamination from firefighting foam – the PFOS and PFOA,” Miller said.

She says the substances have been linked to many serious health problems.

“These chemicals have such dire health effects,” she said. “At very low concentrations, they’re endocrine-disrupting chemicals. They can disrupt thyroid function. They can cause reproductive-health problems – and at very low levels.”

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
Chuck and Linda Kirschner listen to a question-and-answer session that followed Miller's talk.

Chuck Kirschner says that describes a lot of the health issues that he and his wife, Linda, have been dealing with in recent years. Along with some of his neighbors on the city’s south side, near the Regional Fire Training Center, where the firefighting foam was used from 1984 to 2004.    

“Everything that they’ve talked about tonight all falls right in my category of what problems I’m having. And her too,” Kirschner said, referring to Linda. “And my neighbor down the street has cancer. And he’s having more issues, and other stuff that’s going on.”

David Berrey lives in the same area, and he says he’s had some health problems, but nothing major – yet.

“There’s a lot of other people suffering a lot worse,” he said.

Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC
David Berrey listens as audience members recount their experiences dealing with PFOS and PFOA groundwater contamination.

But Berrey says he worries about his family, especially his daughter who wants to have a baby, since he learned last year that tests on his well showed PFOA and PFOS contamination at concentrations around 350 parts-per-trillion. That’s well above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

“These things are very toxic at very, very, very low levels,” he said, adding that there’s a lot of evidence that the toxicity level ought to be set much lower than 70 parts per trillion. She says that’s only an advisory level, because EPA doesn’t even regulate the substances. She says Alaska ought to follow the example of New Jersey, which just last week set a contamination level of 13 parts per trillion. That’s many times better than Alaska’s contaminant level of 400 parts per trillion.

“So the standard in Alaska is more than 20 times higher,” Miller said. “And New Jersey is setting the trend in establishing a maximum contaminant level of 13 parts per trillion.”

Berrey says that’s why he and others in Fairbanks have launched an organization to pressure the state to set a more stringent contaminant limit for PFOS and PFOA and regulate the substances. The organization goes by its acronym, WATER, which he says stands for: “Wake up, Alaskans, to the Toxic Environmental Reality – Water. W-A-T-E-R.”

Berrey says the group has set a Facebook page, and has an e-mail address: And he says members are already are planning to attend a meeting to be held Dec. 18 to provide information about the contamination at Fairbanks International Airport.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.