by Timothy B. Wheeler,

New testing has detected “forever chemicals” in the St. Mary’s River in Southern Maryland, though at levels much lower than those reported there earlier this year by an environmental activist.

The St. Mary’s River Watershed Association said that per– and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, have been detected in water from six of 10 sites sampled in the river and its tidal tributaries.  St. Mary’s College of Maryland separately reported last week that a seemingly low level of PFAS had been found in river water next to its campus.

PFAS are a group of more than 4,700 chemicals that have been used for decades in a wide variety of products, including nonstick cookware, stain– and water-repellant fabrics and fire-fighting foams. They are very persistent — hence their nickname — and have been found in groundwater and surface water, in fish and other foods, as well as in people’s bodies.

A water sample that a local resident collected from St. Inigoes Creek in Southern Maryland contained elevated levels of PFAS, a family of “forever chemicals” that have caused widespread contamination. Courtesy of Pat Elder Credit: Pat Elder

Studies have linked PFAS to a number of adverse health effects, including altered metabolism, fertility, reduced fetal growth, increased risk of obesity and a reduction in the ability to fight infections or diseases.

The St. Mary’s River watershed group decided to test water and oysters from the river after the Navy disclosed in early March that it plans to sample for PFAS in groundwater at Naval Air Station Patuxent River and Webster Field, a naval air research facility on the St. Mary’s River. Fire-fighting foam containing PFAS has been used and sprayed at both installations.

Bob Lewis, the association’s executive director, said the PFAS levels his group found in the river were “not alarming,” given how widely PFAS have been used and found in the environment.  Contamination has been reported at more than 1,500 sites in 49 states, including dozens of locations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Many of the contaminated sites are on or near military installations where fire-fighting foam has been used.

A laboratory hired by the watershed association measured two different PFAS chemicals at levels ranging from 5.1–9.1 parts per trillion.  Those levels are on par with the concentrations of PFAS found by a 2007 study of rainfall, Lewis noted. They’re also far below the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set as a “lifetime health advisory” for PFAS in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion.

But environmental groups and many scientists contend that the EPA drinking-water threshold is far too high. Several states, including New York in the Bay watershed, have set their own lower limits for drinking-water safety. Some scientists have called for setting a contamination limit of 1 part per trillion or even lower.

“Because these PFAS compounds can bioaccumulate, having PFAS at 5 or 9 parts per trillion in water just means it’s building up in the food chain,” said Kyla Bennett, science policy director for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

PFAS have been found contaminating groundwater at or near a number of airports and military air bases that use or used PFAS-containing foam to suppress fires. In this 2013 photo, a fire crew at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware responded to a massive inadvertent foam release from a hangar fire suppression system. (US. Air Force photo/Greg L. Davis)

St. Mary’s College tested three wells providing drinking water to the 361-acre campus along the river, and it sampled river water by the liberal arts school’s floating dock. A different laboratory from the one the watershed association used detected just one PFAS compound at 1.7 parts per trillion. 

The well tests detected no contamination, according to Thomas Brewer, the school’s manager of environmental health, safety and sustainability.  Brewer said the testing was done “out of an abundance of caution” after reports of the Navy’s use of PFAS-containing foam at Webster Field and an environmental activist’s finding of PFAS in river water by his house.

Pat Elder sampled water early this year by his home on St. Inigoes Creek, a river tributary. He sent the sample to a Michigan lab, which reported that the water contained 14 different PFAS compounds totaling nearly 1,900 parts per trillion.  His home is just across the creek from Webster Field.

Elder expressed puzzlement at the much lower PFAS levels reported by the association, but he suggested they might result from differences in where or when the water was sampled.

“Something’s got to explain the discrepancy,” he said.

The watershed association also had its laboratory check for PFAS contamination in oysters collected from the river and Breton Bay, a tributary of the Potomac River. The lab didn’t find any PFAS in the bivalves’ tissue. Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment, stressed the significance of that finding.

“This is important because oysters, as filter feeders, are a good indicator of pollutants that bioaccumulate, such as PFAS,” he said.

Lewis, though, said he believed more testing is needed.

“When we look at our lab report, we’re in a vacuum,” Lewis said. “We don’t have any other lab reports for any other tributary in the Bay. I think it’s important that we have some comparisons.”

A 2002 study detected PFAS in oysters sampled at Hog Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River — at the northern tip of the naval air station. 

(Lucidity Information Design, LLC)

MDE officials announced plans earlier this year to do their own tests for PFAS in water and oysters from the St. Mary’s River and by the Patuxent River naval air station. They described the effort as a “pilot” for sampling other water bodies around the state for the contaminant.

The state’s testing effort was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, but the MDE spokesman said water samples have been collected and sent to a laboratory for analysis, and staff were expected to collect oysters next week. He said the lab analysis generally takes three to four weeks.

Later this summer, Apperson said, the MDE also plans to begin sampling approximately 140 public water systems statewide, focusing first on systems located where PFAS-containing materials were likely used, where there may have been past releases of PFAS into the environment and where drinking-water sources could be especially vulnerable to contamination.

Patrick Gordon, a spokesman for Naval Air Station Patuxent River, said groundwater samples have been taken at Webster Field and are being analyzed. Work has shifted to checking out 18 sites at NAS Patuxent River. PFAS compounds were found in 2017 in several monitoring wells in a 20-acre area on the southern end of the base. Some buried plastic containers, including one with a label for fire-fighting foam, had been dug up there in the 1990s.

“We’re still early in the process,” Gordon said, “but the goal of this site inspection is to determine the extent of PFAS in the environmental media at Pax River.”