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New Castle residents to participate in federal chemical exposure study

Some Delaware residents will have their blood tested in a new federal study of toxic chemical exposure near military bases around the country.


The area around the New Castle Air National Guard Base is one of eight communities nationwide selected for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) study on exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS have been found to increase the risk of cancer and affect human development, fertility and the immune system, according to the CDC. They were long used in consumer products like non-stick pans, as well as firefighting foams used on military bases.

Households impacted by PFAS in their drinking water will be selected randomly for the study and invited to have their blood tested for the chemicals. Those selected will receive a letter in the mail from CDC/ATSDR explaining the exposure assessment and registration process, as well as a phone call from a representative who will answer questions and register them if they want to participate, according to ATSDR.

A spokesperson for ATSDR said in an email that the sites chosen for the exposure assessment were selected through a “rigorous process” that took into account the number of people exposed to PFAS through drinking water, the magnitude of exposure, the length of time over which exposure took place and the complexity of the drinking water system.

"It gets scarier as we learn more. But also it means that action is finally being taken." -Tracy Carluccio

The ATSDR notes that takeaways from the study will be applied to communities across the country facing similar PFAS drinking water exposures.

Tracy Carluccio of regional non-profit Delaware Riverkeeper Network says the study is a good thing for New Castle. “No one there really knows how much is in the water, if people have it in their blood. And then they don’t know if any health effects they’re experiencing are related to it or not,” said Carluccio.

“I’m glad that it’s finally getting the attention that it needs,” she added. “It gets scarier as we learn more. But also it means that action is finally being taken.”

PFAS were found in public water supplies in New Castle in 2014. According to the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC), Artesian Water Company and the City of New Castle Municipal Services Commission detected perfluorooctanoic sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in public water supply wells in the New Castle County Airport area that exceeded the EPA’s lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFAS. The contaminated area is roughly seven square miles and is known as the New Castle Public Wells Ground Water Plume.

Officials say the public drinking waterin New Castle is treated to remove contaminants and continues to meet federal and state Safe Drinking Water Act standards.




A DNREC spokesperson says the state agency “continues to investigate the source of the water contamination in the New Castle public wells.”

PFAS contamination in groundwater or drinking water has been documented in other parts of Delaware.

Elevated levels of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which include PFAS, were found in public water in the Town of Blades in Feb. 2018.

According to DNREC, 54 private wells in Blades have been sampled since then, with six testing above the EPA health advisory level of 70 ppt. A total of eight residences were provided with filters because their water tested above 52.5 ppt for PFCs.

The EPA sampled the Blades municipal wells just before Christmas and results are not yet available, according to DNREC.

Elevated levels of PFCs were detected in shallow groundwater and some surface drainage ditches at the Dover Air Force Base in 2015. 

DNREC’s Site Investigation and Restoration Section (SIRS) has not tested for PFAS in water around the Dover Air Force Base. The U.S. Air Force is continuing to test both on-base and off-base for the chemicals, according to DNREC.

The new CDC study that includes New Castle is expected to begin sometime this year and stretch through 2020.

Other than through the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), which has measured blood PFAS in the U.S. population since 1999,CDC/ATSDR has not yet conducted any PFAS exposure investigations in Delaware.


The state Division of Public Health makes recommendations in Delaware based on the EPA’s health advisory of 70 ppt, which was established in 2016 and is not an enforceable drinking water standard.


“The recent release of EPA’s PFAS Action Plan, the referenced study being conducted by CDC/ATSDR, and other PFAS-related activities and information will provide guidance to DPH as it works to determine the public health regulatory future of PFAS in Delaware’s drinking water,” said Office of Drinking Water Program Administrator Keith Mensch in a statement.

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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