Toxic 'forever chemicals' are everywhere. The government is finally cracking down.

·4 min read

WARMINSTER, Pa. — Hope Grosse thought she had an idyllic childhood. Her house sat next to the former Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, and the land around the base was her playground.

She and her friends would run to the chain link fence and watch the service members put out plane crash fires.

“It was really exciting,” she said.

Hope Grosse (Courtesy Hope Grosse)
Hope Grosse (Courtesy Hope Grosse)

At the time, Grosse said she had no idea her proximity to the Navy base might have exposed her to dangerous chemicals called PFAS, which the U.S. military used in firefighting foam. At 25, Grosse developed melanoma, and said her father died of a brain tumor at age 52.

“I blame the federal government," said Grosse, now 57. "Our government has poisoned us and they continue to do nothing about it.”

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a three-year initiative to regulate PFAS and restrict their use. U.S. manufacturers still use the chemicals, and public water systems are not required to monitor for any PFAS.

PFAS are known as "forever chemicals" because they never break down and remain present in the human body. The chemicals seeped into the groundwater around the Warminster naval base for decades, according to the EPA.

Hope Grosse stands next to the Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, Pa. (Frank Thorp / NBC News)
Hope Grosse stands next to the Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, Pa. (Frank Thorp / NBC News)

“We are acting with a sense of urgency,” Michael Regan, the EPA administrator, said in an interview with NBC News. “I’ve seen firsthand the exposure from these chemical compounds and what it does to a family’s confidence, what it does to a mother who is concerned about the long-term impacts."

PFAS is a class of chemicals that have a carbon fluorine bond that makes them extremely effective but nearly impossible to break down. PFAS are found in more than 2,300 locations across the country, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy group.

The chemicals have been linked to a long list of health problems, including high cholesterol, a suppressed immune system, infertility, some cancers and reduced efficacy of vaccines, according to the EPA.

The Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, Pa. (Frank Thorp / NBC News)
The Naval Air Development Center in Warminster, Pa. (Frank Thorp / NBC News)

People consume the chemical after it leaks into the ground water or is released into the air. Two of the biggest polluters are the Department of Defense and the companies that manufacture the chemical, including Chemours, 3M and Dupont.

But people also ingest PFAS through consumer products. The compound makes products long-lasting, waterproof or greaseproof, and is found in food packaging like pizza boxes, as well as nonstick pans, waterproof clothes and shoes, and stain resistant carpets. A recent study found that half of cosmetics products contain PFAS.

Scott Faber, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, said chemical companies “have understood the risks of these chemicals since the 1950s."

Previous administrations have also known about the dangers of PFAS but only preliminary action was taken. The EPA began monitoring water near contaminated sites less than a decade ago but has done little to remedy the problem.

“They have eluded regulation but that ends right now," Regan said. "This administration is taking action.”

EPA Administrator Michael Regan. (Frank Thorp / NBC News)
EPA Administrator Michael Regan. (Frank Thorp / NBC News)

The EPA regulates 90 contaminates in drinking water but not PFAS. The EPA is now creating a plan to implement new national drinking water standards for PFOA and PFOS, two classes of PFAS, by the fall of 2023.

The EPA is also creating rules to stop companies from dumping PFAS into waterways, launching a national testing strategy, publishing toxicity assessments of PFAS chemicals and studying PFAS in fish.

The U.S. Navy told NBC News that it has plans to ban PFAS from its firefighting foam by Oct. 1, 2023, as directed by Congress.

What the government isn’t doing is an outright ban, which Europe has done for many PFAS chemicals.

“What we have to do is move very strategically through the regulatory process, and we’re going to do that in an expedited timeline,” Regan said.

The American Chemistry Council, the lobby group that represents the chemical manufacturers, said in a statement that the industry supports "science-based" regulation of PFAS.

"But all PFAS are not the same, and they should not all be regulated the same way," the statement said.

This month, California banned PFAS from being used in baby and toddler products.

Grosse is co-founder of Buxmont Coalition for Safe Water in Pennsylvania, with Joanne Stanton. In a statement, the group urged EPA to quickly develop standards for PFAS in drinking water.

"The EPA has just announced all important first steps in regulating these harmful chemicals, but it does not go far enough to protect American citizens today,'' the group said.

At the former naval base in Warminster, the Department of Defense tested the water in 2016 and found 36,000 parts per trillion of PFAS, far above the 70 parts per trillion the EPA recommends as acceptable. The U.S. Navy said that it has started to filter the groundwater and has worked with the town to bring in water from other parts of the state that is not contaminated.

But for Grosse, it’s long overdue.

“I was very angry, extremely upset," she said. "I want clean water for my grandchildren.”

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