A federal public health agency is launching a study this fall that will evaluate Berkeley County residents’ exposure to the PFAS group of chemicals, which includes PFOA, or C8.
The perfluoroalkyl chemicals are used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam.
Representatives for the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) told a crowd of about two dozen people who attended an information session Wednesday evening that public participation is crucial to the study.
“We hope you all become ambassadors for what we’re trying to do and if you talk about this amongst your neighbors and if you hear of someone who has a letter you encourage them to participate,” said Patrick Breysse, head of ATSDR and the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health.
Federal researchers are launching PFAS exposure assessments in eight communities across the country that are near military sites, including Berkeley County. The study was prompted by Congress, which mandated the research in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
The exposure assessment is the first step toward understanding more about how PFAS chemicals might affect human health, said Rachel Rogers, an environmental health scientist who leads ATSDR’s work on PFAS.
“The goal of this exposure assessment is to understand how people have been exposed,” she said. “We’ll be doing that by measuring levels of PFAS in people's bodies, specifically in their blood and in their urine.”
Berkeley County was selected because of its proximity to the Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base. In 2016, the City of Martinsburg shut down its Big Springs water plant after U.S. Environmental Protection Agency testing revealed PFAS in the water at unsafe levels. Groundwater was likely contaminated by PFAS-laden firefighting foam used at the nearby base.
Brad Goodwin, coordinator of the exposure assessment, said the goal of the study is to learn more about how much PFAS residents have in their bodies and where it could have come from.
“So we'll be able to look at the concentrations of PFAS in people's blood here in Berkeley County and see how those compared to people that didn't get exposed through drinking water and understand how much additional exposure there may have been,” he said.
To be scientifically rigorous, the study needs 395 randomly selected participants from the Berkeley County area. Letters inviting people to participate were sent out this week.
In addition to giving a urine and blood sample, participants will be asked to answer a short questionnaire about the ways they may have been exposed to the Teflon chemicals. The researchers will also collect tap water and indoor dust samples at some homes.
Researchers will be in Berkeley County in late September and early October.
Previous research, including from the Parkersburg region where residents were exposed to DuPont’s C8 chemical for decades, has shown exposure to these chemicals at low levels is linked to some cancers and thyroid problems. PFAS chemicals have been detected in at least 10 water systems in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia.
ATSDR researcher Rodgers stressed the exposure assessments will not address if and how exposure to PFAS through drinking water impacts health.
“Those are important questions that we are looking to answer down the road,” she said. “This exposure assessment is just a first step in that direction.”
The agency is planning on undertaking a health impacts study later.
All residents who live in a household that receive a letter are eligible to participate as long as they are at least three years old, lived in the area for at least one year before May 19, 2016 and don’t suffer from a blood disorder.
Final results from all sites involved in the assessments are expected by late 2021.