Fire-fighting foam has been used to against fire during aircraft emergencies, as here when a C-130 came in without landing gear at Santa Barbara airport in 2019. The use of PFAS in such foam, however, stopped in 2015. | Credit: Mike Eliason/S.B. County Fire

The use of two highly fluorinated chemicals in the group known as PFAS ended in 2015 in the United States, but the long life and ubiquity of the manmade compounds raised concerns about their harmful effects and presence in drinking water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued health-effects advisories in 2016 — for PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) — including potential fetal-development effects, testicular and kidney cancers, and immune effects.

In Santa Barbara County, water wells in Goleta and Santa Maria and on Vandenberg Air Force Base were identified on an Environmental Working Group (EWG) map as potentially contaminated with the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a k a PFAS, from foams developed to fight liquid-based fires, like kerosene or jet-fuel fires. For that reason, the California Water Board has issued testing orders to water agencies with wells within two miles of an airport or a mile of a landfill.

The PFAS chemicals have such an ability to repel water and grease that since the 1940s, they were widely used in products like nonstick cookware, fire- or water-resistant clothing, leather, carpeting, paper, and packaging, as for microwavable popcorn. Products containing PFAS were manufactured on a global scale, and the long-lived, or “persistent,” chemicals were found in the blood of all the EPA tested, and near manufacturing or disposal sites.

The most consistent human findings, the EPA stated, were increased cholesterol levels, effects on the immune system and infant birth weight, cancer, and thyroid hormone disruption. PFOA and PFOS were phased out beginning around 2000, but since then, the Gen X “high-performance fluoropolymer” has replaced it; that compound is under review by the EPA.

Testing Wells at SBA

At Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, one well ​— ​out of four possible at-risk wells ​— ​was found to contain contaminants. Though located out in Goleta, the airport belongs to the City of Santa Barbara. The well in question registered below-the-threshold levels of PFOA in August and September 2019, said David Matson, assistant general manager of the Goleta Water District. The state had notified his agency because “aqueous film-forming foams” were used at the airport in the past for fire suppression and fire training.

The airport well tests found PFOA, at a level of 38 and 35 parts per trillion (ppt), respectively. Since then, monthly tests have detected zero levels, Matson said.

As of February 6, California lowered the response level, or the point at which a well is taken out of the distribution pipeline, from 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of the two substances combined to 10 ppt for PFOA and 40 ppt for PFOS. Should wells reach that level, the water is treated and customers are notified. The notification level, or the point at which monitoring is necessary, was lowered last August to 5.1 ppt for PFOA (from 14 ppt) and 6.5 ppt for PFOS (from 13 ppt).

The Federal Aviation Administration has told airport fire agencies, “No more training,” said City Fire Battalion Chief Mike DePonce. The crews formerly held drills on a quarterly basis to ensure they were trained on the appropriate percentage of foam retardant. To be able to continue training, a “closed system unit” that totally contains the foam is on the department’s wish list. During aircraft emergencies when foam must be deployed, the airport fire station now uses a more environmentally friendly retardant, one that breaks down more easily, said DePonce.

North County Wells

Vandenberg’s public affairs officer Robin Ghormley stated no PFAS compounds were found when their water wells were tested in 2016 and 2019. Santa Maria’s water agency had not returned the Independent’s request for information by publication deadline, but the state’s PFAS map shows the subject wells to be at less than the notification limit.

According to the California Water Board’s Edward Ortiz, PFOA was detected at a well north of the Santa Maria Airport, but the level — 1.7 parts per trillion — was below the notification level. Seven other wells are near the airport, he said, and had no reported detections. He noted that the affected well, in combination with water from five other wells and state water, supplies more than 100,000 people.

Ortiz stated that both the landfill in Santa Maria and the airport are looking into total PFAS. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, more than 5,000 types of PFAS compounds exist. In addition to GenX, PFOA, and PFOS, another one is PFHxA (perfluorohexanoic acid), which has no regulatory standard. It, too, has been found in the well near Santa Maria Airport, said Ortiz.

City of Santa Barbara Tests

Though the City of Santa Barbara is not on either the EWG or state contamination maps, its Water Division decided to test all its water sources — Lake Cachuma, Gibraltar Reservoir, and its groundwater wells — as well as the water from the tap. About a half dozen PFAS compounds were newly added to the EPA’s “emerging contaminants” list in 2012, city water’s Gaylen Fair said. The water-quality lab supervisor explained that the UCMR, or unregulated contaminant monitoring rule, and subsequent testing nationwide found PFAS in parts per billion just about everywhere, but especially near manufacturing sites and places with a concentration of fire-fighting foam.

The city’s water sources, before and after treatment, have all had a clean bill of health for PFOA and PFOS since 2014, when testing began. Levels for both component chemicals were less than 2 ppt, a fact sheet at the city’s website states. The Cater Water Treatment Plant and the city’s desal plant use two methods that are known to remove the PFAS compounds from water: reverse osmosis and activated carbon filters, respectively.

PFAS is so ever-present in the environment that the individuals who take the test samples can’t bathe for the 24 hours before, said Fair, in order to avoid inadvertent contamination. The compounds are in shampoo and soap, and in cosmetics and common products like Goretex and some fleece clothing. “You can’t even use a Sharpie,” she said, when they’re out in the field.

The other ever-present use of fire-fighting chemicals, of course, is the fire retardant dropped on Santa Barbara’s hillsides when wildfires rage. The active ingredient in Phos-Chek, the most commonly used fire retardant dropped from aircraft, is the fertilizer-like salt called ammonium phosphate or ammonium polyphosphate. Based on its Material Safety Data Sheet and the manufacturer, the product ​contains no PFAS compounds.

Editor’s Note: The word “water” was added to the original headline; Edward Ortiz stated that all investigation results are not in yet.


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