In this Aug. 1, 2018 photo, a water tower stands above a residential neighborhood in Horsham, Pa. In Horsham and surrounding towns in eastern Pennsylvania, and at other sites around the United States, the foams once used routinely in firefighting training at military bases contained per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. EPA testing between 2013 and 2015 found significant amounts of PFAS in public water supplies in 33 U.S. states. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Brett Sholtis is WITF’s Transforming Health reporter, covering health policy and community health issues that affect Pennsylvanians. Brett strives to share personal stories that have a tie to broad issues and emerging trends. He seeks to give voice to diverse viewpoints, including those of people living with mental illness, disability and those living in poverty. He plays a key role in WITF’s mental health series, Through the Cracks, which reports on problem areas in mental health services and efforts to reduce stigma around those living with behavioral disorders. Previously, Brett was a business reporter at the York Daily Record, where his work included award-winning examinations of the nuclear power industry and food safety. He is a University of Pittsburgh graduate and a Pennsylvania Army National Guard veteran.
(Harrisburg) — The Department of Health wants to hire 10 scientists to learn more about the health risks of the PFAS group of chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other illnesses.
Health department Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine spoke at budget hearings this week about the effort, which comes as a growing number of states are calling to regulate the chemicals. PFAS were once used in industrial and consumer products ranging from nonstick cookware to firefighting foam, and are now found in drinking water around military bases and airports.
The Department is seeking $1.4 million, included in Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal, to hire toxicologists, epidemiologists and chemists to study PFAS. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has pinpointed 20 locations around the state with high PFAS levels in water sources. Those include two in the midstate: Letterkenny Army Depot and Harrisburg International Airport. Eleven of the sites are in Southeastern counties.
Speaking to the bipartisan committee of lawmakers, Levine said the community needs to learn the risks of exposure to the chemicals, and how long they stay in water.
“They are long-lived. In fact, it’s not really clear if they ever go away. We’re still studying what the medical effects will be,” Levine said.
Levine noted that one toxicologist job is already posted, though the department is struggling to find someone to fill the position. That comes five months after Wolf signed an executive order to manage contamination, identify sources, and supply information to the public.
The effort is part of a collaboration with Centers for Disease Control and DEP, which is looking to set the “maximum contaminant level,” the legal limit on what is allowed in public water systems under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Although the effects of PFAS aren’t well known, they are believed to affect growth, learning and behavior of infants and children and can lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, according to Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. They can also interfere with hormones, increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system and increase cancer risk.
“The potential for health effects from PFAS in humans is not well understood,” the agency states, because some chemicals have been studied more than others. “In general, animal studies have found that animals exposed to PFAS at high levels resulted in changes in the function of the liver, thyroid, pancreas and hormone levels.”