South Carolina water regulators shouldn’t wait on federal regulations to start testing well water around military bases for potentially hazardous chemicals linked to cancers, thyroid disease, pregnancy complications and other ailments.
For more than 50 years, PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, have been used in firefighting foams and other industrial processes and have since seeped into groundwater supplies on or near dozens of military bases nationwide.
In South Carolina, the groundwater in and around Shaw Air Force Base near Sumter may be the most affected, as Andrew Brown of The Post and Courier reported based on a previously undisclosed study commissioned by the Air Force.
“The groundwater in the area presents a potential hazard to human health,” the report said. “Drinking water may be impacted.”
It’s unclear how extensive the problem is near Shaw, but some residents near the base rely on well water that may be contaminated with two of the most commonly used chemicals, PFOS and PFOA.
So far, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control has balked at testing for the chemicals because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to formally regulate their use. This is despite the chemicals being found in groundwater at all six sites tested around Shaw.
The federal government should use its authority to deal with this clear public health issue, but absent stronger EPA protections, DHEC must take the lead in safeguarding the state’s groundwater supplies and warn residents about potential hazards. At least eight states already have set their own limits for PFAS that exceed EPA recommendations.
The Air Force-commissioned study also found evidence of PFAS in the ground and groundwater around Joint Base Charleston, the North Auxiliary Airfield in Orangeburg County and the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.
The recently passed defense spending bill contains several amendments aimed at phasing out PFAS in firefighting foams, expanding water monitoring and studying the health effects of the chemicals, but all of that could take years. And previous studies have shown probable links between at least one chemical in the class, PFOA, and high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancers, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
The Department of Defense has warned that about 600 water systems on or near military bases have tested positive for high levels of PFAS. The EPA recommends no more than 70 parts per trillion in drinking water, but has not set an enforceable limit, though some groundwater on or around S.C. military bases has tested at levels thousands of times higher than that.
South Carolina already has problems in getting hundreds of small, rural water agencies to conform to clean drinking water standards. Without robust federal protections, it is imperative that DHEC test in suspect areas and let residents know if their groundwater contains high levels of the chemicals.