Free Bottled Water Offered as Contamination Concerns Grow

Residents living near the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station in Horsham will be able to receive free bottled water Friday from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Residents with confirmed levels of certain chemicals in their water, can get up to two cases of water at the Horsham Community Center. (Published Friday, May 20, 2016)

Think before you drink -- the water. Or better yet, know the contamination numbers if you’ve worked at the old Willow Grove Naval Air Station or live nearby.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued new guidelines Thursday for toxic chemicals in drinking water. The new information is significant for people in communities near Willow Grove as well as former Naval Air Station Warminster and Air National Guard Horsham where groundwater and well water were contaminated by two key chemicals found in the firefighting foam used on the bases -- perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS).

Reporter Kyle Bagenstose explains the new contamination levels, history and impact of the EPA’s “long-awaited update to its drinking water advisories” in a Bucks County Courier Times article:

Up until Thursday, the military had been gauging its response using short-term, provisional health advisories for the chemicals set by the EPA in 2009: 0.4 parts per billion for PFOA in drinking water, and 0.2 ppb for PFOS.

Thursday’s announcement, however, set an advised limit of 0.07 ppb for PFOS and PFOA combined, in order to protect against health effects from a lifetime of exposure. In a worst case scenario, that means drinking water with 0.58 ppb of the chemicals (0.39 ppb PFOA and 0.19 ppb PFOS), a level that was previously considered safe, now would measure more than eight times the recommended limit.

The EPA said it’s safety guidelines changed because science has evolved since its last advisory in 2009.

Within hours of the EPA advisory, the government expanded its free bottled water program to people whose wells now have toxic levels of PFOA and PFOS under the new guidelines. Residents with confirmed contamination levels in Horsham, Warrington and Warminster are allocated two cases of water a day (pickup info below).

Contamination is not a new issue at Willow Grove, now called Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove or NASJRB Willow Grove. For at least 20 years some people who worked on the base -- and their family members -- have suspected their cancers were connected to the same contaminants but no direct link has been admitted or proven.

The base was shuttered in 2011 and the Pennsylvania Air National Guard took over the facility. Since 2014, bottled water has been brought in for the handful of people who still work on the base in security and administrative positions.

In recent years, cancer survivors and family members of Willow Grove workers -- enlisted and civilian -- who died from cancers, organized on Facebook and began sharing information. Members of that group are expected at next week's open house informational sessions hosted by the Horsham Land Redevelopment Authority (HLRA) to address contamination concerns. The HLRA has developed a plan to revitalize the Superfund site with residential, retail, parks, housing for the homeless and even a school.

Meanwhile, residents near the three military properties whose drinking water has confirmed levels of PFOA and PFOS can get their bottled water at the Horsham Community Center located at 1025 Horsham Road. Friday hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

State Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf applauded the bottled water effort as symbolic, but not a solution.

“The federal government has a particular responsibility here because the base is where we believe the contamination occurred,” said Greenleaf who added he was committed to the idea of evaluating the health consequences exposure for people both on and off the base.

“We have to take whatever steps are necessary to protect the people in these communities,” said Greenleaf.

The senator welcomed people to contact his office by emailing him directly sgreenleaf@pasen.gov or by reaching out to his Chief of Staff, Kevin Andrews: kandrews@pasen.gov.