UPPER DUBLIN — Residents across Montgomery County who believe they have been affected by PFAS groundwater contamination from local military bases received some good news this week.
Area members of Congress announced roughly $1 million in federal funding for a health study examining the effects of those contaminants on the local community.
"I feel confident that this first annual grant is an extraordinary positive step for Montgomery County," said U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-4th.
For the past several years, local lawmakers have called on state and federal officials to fund the cleanup of contamination with PFAS — a category of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances that include Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) and Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) — which are linked to firefighting foams at former military bases in Horsham and Warminster.
The announcement by Dean and fellow U.S. Reps. Brendan Boyle (D-2nd) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-1st) confirmed a $1 million federal grant for research on the health effects of PFAS exposure. The federal Centers for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has selected Montgomery County as one of seven sites to take part in a nationwide study.
"In many ways, while this is a local issue, it is now increasingly a national issue. For better or worse, our community was ahead of the curve. We were one of the first sites where this was discovered," said Boyle.
"As a result of that, while it's obviously tragic because it means more people have been affected, it does mean there are more partners who are interested in working on this," he said.
A bipartisan congressional task force has been established comprised of members from affected states, including Michigan, New Hampshire, Colorado, New York state in addition to Pennsylvania.The task force is co-chaired by Fitzpatrick, who said the federal funding will have to be maintained in future years in order to make use of the information it produces.
"For this health study to provide reliable data, that we're going to base decisions on, it has to continue. You can't have a health study that starts, stops, and restarts again; it's not going to give you good data," Fitzpatrick said.
"Anybody who would get in the way of continued funding is going to have to answer to that. Not only are they not fulfilling the mission, they're actually flushing down the drain the money that's already been spent in previous years. You can't get an answer in one year," he said.
The three officials were joined by Pennsylvania state epidemiologist Sharon Watkins, and Temple University researchers Dr. Resa Jones and Dr. Robin Taylor Wilson, who described how they hope to identify the causes of cancer clusters seen near the bases.
"We've proposed to apply advanced statistics, spatial and analytic techniques to model PFAS exposure, and other potential cancer determinants, over time," Jones said.
"With the funding support from the CDC as well as ATSDR, as well as collaborations with our colleagues, and the continued engagement of community partners, we look forward to applying rigorous methods, to provide answers to the residents of Bucks and Montgomery counties — the answers they've been seeking," she said.
Wilson said her job is to understand and identify risk factors for cancers of the kidney and thyroid, both of which have been increasing in incidence recently in the affected areas despite drops in certain risk factors.
"Have you ever been in a wind storm, and tried to carry on a conversation? The job of an epidemiologist is to eliminate as many sources of noise as possible. In this case, it is controlling for unaccounted noise, or variation in family background, so I can get a more clear signal related to PFAS exposure," she said.
Joanne Stanton and Hope Grosse from the Buxmont Coalition for Safer Water shared stories from the over 5,000 area residents who are members of their group, saying the medical expenses and psychological toll can be incalculable.
"I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer at 25 years old. Three months prior to that, my father died of cancer at age 52. I've had a lifetime of PFAS exposure. Anytime something is wrong with my health, I'm immediately filled with crippling fear that it's cancer. And I'm not alone," Grosse said.
She shared first-person testimonial from a resident whose daughter was diagnosed with Stage 4 kidney cancer at three years old, another who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 11, one who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1998 and then with kidney cancer in 2015, and a resident whose father, mother, brother, son, two aunts and an uncle were all diagnosed with cancer. "'We all lived in Warminster, and we all drank out of the same well,'" Grosse said, quoting that survivor.
Stanton said she hopes the health study can help identify exactly what PFAS contaminants residents were exposed to, what the health effects may be, if that exposure has caused an increased cancer risk, what measures can be taken now, and if any proactive health screenings can be helpful.
"This study can finally move us forward, as we try to get some answers to these, and other questions, that have been looming over us for decades," she said.
Dean credited the current Congress, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, with securing the funding to study the contamination across the country.
"I feel confident, based on my own conversations with Speaker Pelosi, that she understands the PFAS emerging problem, around the country, not just here," Dean said.
"There is nothing we can't do without public persuasion, without you behind us. We can solve this problem," she said.