There’s a kind of chemical foam used to suppress oil fires. But that foam can leach into the environment and contaminate groundwater. In Alaska, it’s been detected close to some airports and military bases in Fairbanks, where routine drills occur. It’s also cropping up in other places around the state.
Kelly McLaughlin’s family has owned property in Gustavus since the 1960s on what was once part an old territorial homestead. Most of it is close to the airport.
This past summer, she learned the state was testing water wells nearby for contaminants — specifically, a compound known as PFAS.
Many of the residents of Gustavus are on their own water system, including McLaughlin. So, she asked the state to test her water, too. She says it took some convincing, but in September, she got the results back, and she was floored. Her well tested positive for the contaminant. It had twice as much as the federal government advises for human health.
“You don’t think the water you’ve been drinking and assume is safe is poison,” McLaughlin said. “That’s not a thought that crossed my mind ever. I was wasn’t prepared for the results to be that bad.”
The state is now providing McLaughlin’s home with shipped-in jugs of water. Eleven other private wells also qualified.
A spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Transportation said this is a growing national issue, and that’s what tipped off the state to test the wells near the Gustavus airport.
Over the summer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report suggesting that PFAS may be more hazardous to health than previously thought.
McLaughlin says she’s stayed awake at night thinking about the impact this could have on her family.
“My daughter of course drinks the bathwater and there’s no keeping kids from engaging with the contaminated water,” she said.
Exposure to the chemical compound has been to linked to an increased risk of cancer. It can affect growth and learning development in children and interfere with hormone levels.
McLaughlin says she’d like the state to offer some kind of blood tests to the residents, but so far, they haven’t made the offer.
“No. And I’ve asked and asked, and I’d given every reason I can think of,” she said. “I’d like my breast milk tested. I would like my blood tested and my kid’s blood tested. I think at the very least, it’s information that can be applied at a later date.”
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services responded on Friday that the agency will not be conducting blood tests because “scientists do not know how blood levels correspond with effects on health from PFAS exposure.”
In the meantime, McLaughlin is considering paying for her own test to get a baseline for her medical records.
She’s still hoping the state will be responsive.
“This was nobody’s fault. As far as I know, nobody knew how bad these chemicals were,” McLaughlin said. “Nobody knew how far they would travel. The DOT did not intentionally poison the people in Gustavus. But it happened.”
Now, she says the ball is in the state’s court to to try to make this right.
A spokesperson for the Department of Transportation says they’re bringing in an engineer to start to develop some long term solutions.
The state is also currently taking public comment until Nov. 5 to institute some kind of enforceable levels for the chemical compound — beyond the federal guidelines.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated as new information has become available.