Groundwater tests don’t ease contamination fears

Worried residents arrived early for a meeting Sunday afternoon, more than 200 filling the Satellite Beach Civic Center amid concerns about groundwater contamination causing cancer clusters in their neighborhoods. Several carried photos of loved ones who had passed away or were too sick to attend. The line to ask questions took more than an hour to wind to the end.

The apprehension now reaching a boiling point began this spring with the announcement that chemicals called PFOA and PFOS used in firefighting foams were found in Patrick Air Force Base groundwater.

Subsequent tests showing acceptable levels in groundwater along the barrier island, and drinking water test results for island schools, didn’t allay the fears caused by a growing body of new reports of rare cancers being compiled by Satellite Beach oncologist Dr. Julie Clift Greenwalt, who has spearheaded the effort.

Greenwalt, herself a survivor of a rare form of cancer of the appendix, asserts there may be actual cancer “clusters,” or higher incidences of certain cancers and other health problems in Satellite Beach, linked to the nearby air force base. She got emotional at testimonials of parents with children now battling cancer as they remembered their youngsters playing in the sprinklers and playing sports and drinking the now-suspect groundwater.

Unfortunately, Greenwalt said for every water test that comes out clean, there seem to be new reports of cancer cases for all ages found in the area.

“There are many questions still to be answered. The more of the data I look at, the more trends I find, the more cases I get,’’ she said.

Initial data mapping of those diagnosed with cancer shows a higher incidence in some Satellite Beach neighborhoods. That mapping coincides with Greenwalt calling for blood testing of Satellite Beach residents to determine their cancer risks. Also ongoing are groundwater tests of wells throughout the city to detect contaminants.

On hand were representatives from Brevard County, which also had acceptable test results in South Melbourne Beach, and the Brevard County School District, which tested and found drinking water at barrier island schools –supplied by the City of Melbourne – to be below harmful thresholds of the chemicals. Also present was District 4 Brevard County Commissioner Curt Smith and District 52 State House Rep. Thad Altman.

The chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), once were used in firefighting foams on base. They are also found in Teflon coatings, electroplating and waterproofing treatments. The federal Environmental Protection Agency in 2016 published a voluntary health advisory warning that long-term exposure to drinking water containing more than 70 parts per trillion of these chemicals could be dangerous. No longer used, they are now considered to be a “compound of emerging concern.”

A March 2018 Department of Defense report showed Patrick exceeded the EPA recommended level for the chemicals in some test wells, with the highest level detected on the base at 4.3 million parts per trillion.

Satellite Beach City Manager Courtney Barker gave results from three test wells quickly drilled in response to the concerns causing a stir on social media about the DOD report. Those results: 41.5 parts per trillion near City Hall; 22.85 parts per trillion at Jackson Avenue near Satellite High School; and 30.13 parts per trillion near Sea Park Elementary School. She noted that Cocoa Beach reported even higher rates of the chemicals, proving the issue is more widespread and will require coordination among all state and local agencies.

“This is a new road that we’re all walking along. We have to confirm the tests and there is going to be more testing in the future. If we are going to be worried, we need to know what we’re going to do about it,’’ she said.

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