Something in the Water
By Alena Ruckh
It’s December, 2018, junior year of high school, just short of my 17th birthday. I sit beside the Christmas tree, binge watching “Friends” on Netflix, anxiously waiting for my parents to return home from an important doctor’s appointment. After what seemed like hours, the front door creaks open. Cold air fills the room. The words melt onto the floor in front of me. They found something. But don’t worry yet.
For over twenty years, my family has lived and drank the tap water in Huntingdon Valley, PA, and in 2018, my dad was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Fortunately, the cancer was caught at an early stage and was treated successfully, but as a fit, 52-year-old non-smoker who had not shown signs of being genetically predisposed to cancer, this was a confounding revelation. “I was freaked out, I was like how did I get this?… so I went online,” he said. “In my research I saw that Erin Brockovich had spoken at a public zoom meeting for our area at [Upper Moreland High School], it was open to the community.” This was the first we’d heard that we should be concerned about our drinking water, and theorized that his cancer could be linked to it.
We live just downstream from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove with the Pennypack Creek running through the area. In the early 2000s, my dad and I would attend air shows at the base. The Blue Angels were a squadron of fighter jets, painting the sky of Willow Grove with puffy white chemtrails a couple times a year. I have a small plastic jet with a broken wing secured back on with masking tape, which my dad bought for me at the time when the base was still operating.
The now defunct naval air base was designated a Superfund site in 1995, which means that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) thinks the contamination levels are so severe that money needs to be spent to clean it up. According to the EPA, the nearby naval air base used fire-extinguishing foams that contained chemicals that have seeped into the groundwater. The source of these chemicals, PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances), include industrial and manufacturing facilities, as well as landfills where PFAS have leached into groundwater, and places where PFAS-based firefighting foam has been used such as airports, military sites, chemical plants, and above ground petroleum storage facilities.
While the Willow Grove Naval Air Base has since shut down and is no longer discharging PFAs today, the effects of these “forever chemicals” persist – PFAS have been found in the soil, drinking water, and in the people of Montgomery County, PA. My dad saw a road sign advertising PFAS blood testing for a few eligible zip codes, ours being one of them. He took the opportunity as one of nearly 1300 volunteers. At a small pop-up testing center, he was asked to take an extensive survey on his health background and habits, and then his blood was drawn in vials. Blood testing for research on PFAS was so highly sought after by residents of the area that the study eventually reached a threshold on volunteers and were no longer accepting test subjects. PFAS levels are considered high if a blood sample finds anything over 20 nanograms per milliliter. When my dad received his test results, his overall PFAS levels were 46.17 nanograms per milliliter. These results place him in the top 30% of subjects in the high risk category.
Having lived in this region for my entire 21 years, I know that PFAS are likely present in my body, as well as in those of my friends and family. “I’ve drank the tap water my whole life, and I am fine so far, it’s already in our bodies at this point,” I recall my one friend saying as she offered me a glass of Willow Grove tap water, which her family continues to drink in spite of their awareness of my family’s situation. And perhaps there is nothing that can be done to reverse the damage. PFAS water contamination is becoming more common in urban and suburban regions across the country, demanding a need for extraction of these chemicals to ensure safe drinking water. There is a supposed “acceptable” amount of PFAS to be consumed, but this is difficult to measure, and PFAS are difficult to remove from the environment once the damage is done.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science describes PFAS as a group of thousands of chemicals used to make products resistant to water, heat, and stains. They can be found in a variety of household items and consumer goods, such as clothing, food packaging, cookware, cosmetics, and carpet. They are also found in a fire extinguishing foam, known as aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF), such as in the case of the contamination in Montgomery County, PA. PFAs are known as “forever chemicals” due to the fact that they do not easily degrade in the environment and are very difficult to extract or destroy. As we continue testing and looking for them, we are finding PFAS in more locations including in rivers in Allentown. It is unclear what has been done to address this contamination in Allentown, whereas Emmaus has been more prompt in addressing that PFAS could be a growing concern in the area. In the Lehigh Valley, the process of mitigating PFAS contamination could be costly, amounting to as much as $12 million. Any remediation – some of which has begun in Montgomery County – is a massive investment, as we are only beginning our mission to take the “forever” out of forever chemicals.
There is currently not yet enough scientific evidence or research to suggest safe exposure levels to PFAS. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania states that the EPA sets the proposed threshold at nearly zero, enforcing that drinking water should be deemed unsafe if it exceeds PFAS levels of 4 parts per trillion (ppt). The EPA’s proposed drinking water standards are comparable to one drop of PFAS in several Olympic sized swimming pools. According to the Environmental Litigation Group, the Willow Grove [air naval base] was over 2,000 times the safe exposure limit. The contamination issue was largely overlooked until 2014, when the EPA required public drinking water systems to test for PFAS for the first time. When examined in 2014, PFAS levels in Willow Grove were even higher in both the groundwater and soil. In years to come, several lawsuits were filed due to the link between the PFAS contamination and increasing health conditions in the area, such as cancers.
Since 2018, my family has purchased massive plastic jugs of spring water. Often, water was low in stock at our local Giant grocery store. Just recently, my family switched to a water cooler that dispenses jugs of water delivered to us on a weekly basis. Tap water is a last resort kind of thing. When we must use it for cooking, or when we run out of bottled water for a day or two, my parents assure me that the water is safer than it was. Still, when I sip water from practically any source at all, including here at college in Allentown, I consider what I may not taste or see in my green dented hydroflask. I remember the BCG treatments (treatments targeting only the bladder) my dad had to endure for several months following his diagnosis. And I must ask myself, where is this bottled water we now drink coming from? How can I be assured that this water is safe and better? Can I trust the tap water at college?
The Willow Grove naval air base near my home was in operation for nearly 70 years, from 1942 until 2011. “I remember when I was online, I saw pictures of kids in the 1950s playing in the fireman’s foam at the airbase,” says my dad, “The firemen were practicing and they put foam all over the tarmac and told kids to go and play in it, because they were enjoying it, they thought it was harmless.” Which it was. At the time. Now, we realize how much of the chemicals we think were harmless might be harmful, not just to the environment but to us. “People who are in their forties and fifties now are realizing that these lovely childhoods they had playing outside, in their friends houses, and sometimes on the military base left them exposed and vulnerable and sometimes sick,” said environmental reporter Sharon Lerner, in an interview with the Intercept. “You grew up outside, thinking you’re in a safe environment, in a safe home and living this perfect life and then you find out you were poisoned,” said Montgomery County resident and cancer survivor Hope Grosse. My dad grew up in New Jersey, but chose to move to Montgomery County with my mom in their twenties. “It freaks me out to know that if I didn’t move here, I might not have gotten cancer,” he says.