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Brevard County school water tests safe but cancer fears remain

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Tap water at Brevard County's beachside schools got a clean bill of health Friday.

With the first day of school a week away, the news came as a relief to parents of more than 7,700 public school students along Brevard's barrier Island. But the results are little consolation to hundreds of cancer survivors demanding answers about why cancer-causing chemicals were recently found in the groundwater in two beachside cities, according to News 6 partner Florida Today.

“The results indicate that the drinking water was safe,” said Jennifer Wolfinger, a spokeswoman for Brevard Public Schools. “Only trace amounts were detected, and well below the EPA guidelines."

Wolfinger said of the 21 fluorinated chemicals tested for, 20 were not detected. The tests from samples drawn last month at 13 barrier island schools did find something called Perfluorobutyrate (PFBA) at more than one of the schools. PFBA is is a breakdown product of chemicals used in paper food packaging, stain-resistant fabrics, carpets and in the manufacturing photographic film.

[READ: Cocoa Beach groundwater contains cancer-linked chemicals, test results show]

Wolfinger did not yet know which schools had the trace levels of PFBA. 

The final report on the school water testing is expected next week.

The school district spent about $10,000 on the testing.

Meanwhile, groundwater tests from two beachside cities this week further fueled fears that chemicals commonly associated with firefighting foams may be contributing to a spate of cancer cases along the county's barrier island in recent years. It's unclear at this point where the chemicals are coming from, but groundwater tests at Patrick Air Force Base have found high levels in recent years. Residents also worry what hidden military waste from the base were buried in the area decades ago, before the homes were built.

While Cocoa Beach and Satellite Beach's drinking water comes from sources on the mainland, this week's revelation that toxic chemicals often associated with fire extinguishing foams were present in groundwater increased concerns that contamination of the barrier island's water table could be more widespread than originally thought, with broader health implications.

Besides the groundwater at Cocoa Beach's golf course, the highest level of the compounds were discovered at a site where sewage from Patrick Air Force Base flows into Cocoa Beach's sewer system.

[RELATED: Satellite Beach officials release water testing results amid cancer cluster concerns]

The chemicals, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), were widely used in fire extinguishing foams. They were also used in pesticides, Teflon coatings, electroplating and a litany of consumer products. Their use has been phased out but the compounds remain in the environment for decades and are not regulated.

Routes of exposure include drinking water, dust and diet. Researchers are finding that even at low levels of exposure, the compounds are implicated in some types of cancer, thyroid defects, immune suppression, elevated cholesterol and pregnancy complications.

A 2013 study by researchers at Boston University, University of California and University of North Carolina found a link between PFOA exposure and testicular and kidney cancer. They suggested there also may be an association with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and prostate and ovarian cancers. There is still significant uncertainty regarding human health impacts of PFAS, scientists say.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, routes of exposure include drinking water, food, hand-to-mouth transfer from surfaces treated with the compounds and occupational exposure in industries that make or use products containing the chemicals.

[READ: Brevard Public Schools tests drinking water at 13 beach side campuses for chemicals]

Cocoa Beach, Satellite Beach and Brevard County representatives met with Patrick Air Force Base officials on Thursday to compare notes on the possible source of the contamination. The most likely suspect are the foams that were used for decades at the base in training drills and putting out fires.

Cocoa Beach and Satellite Beach tested for the two compounds after residents raised concerns earlier this year about a spate of local cancer cases in recent years among otherwise healthy young people.

In late June, Cocoa Beach drew samples of groundwater and reclaimed water at the golf course and the city's nearby sewer plant.

On Thursday, Cocoa Beach announced combined levels of the two compounds as follows:

  • 248.3 parts per trillion in a 10-foot-deep well at the golf course's northern end; 
  • 129.6 parts per trillion at a 10-foot-deep well well on the golf course near Banana River; 
  • 430.1 parts per trillion where Patrick Air Force Base sewage flows into Cocoa Beach's sewer system;
  • 284.4 parts per trillion at the Cocoa Beach's sewer plant's discharge, right before treated sewage is pumped to reclaimed water storage tanks;
  • 177.2 parts per trillion at the point where all the sewage, including Patrick's, flows into Cocoa Beach's sewer plant.

According to the city, more sites are being added for a second round of testing within the next nine days. The results will be posted when received and analyzed, Cocoa Beach officials said. That will include sewage flowing from spots throughout the city, at various lift stations and from Port Canaveral, city officials said.

By comparison, Satellite Beach's recent groundwater tests at three wells that ranged from 10 to 20 feet deep were as follows:

  • 41.5 parts per trillion in a well right outside City Hall;
  • 22.85  parts per trillion in a well at Jackson Avenue near Satellite High School and;
  • 30.13 parts per trillion in well at South Patrick Community Park, near Sea Park Elementary School.
  • The decision to test the water came after Julie Greenwalt, a Jacksonville oncologist and cancer survivor who graduated from Satellite High School, questioned whether local exposures could have contributed to her illness and those of dozens of others in the area in recent years.

Greenwalt points to recent federal testing that showed high concentrations of chemicals from firefighting foams in groundwater at Patrick Air Force Base.

The compounds were among 28 chemicals that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency required water systems to test for between 2013 and 2015. Neither Melbourne nor Cocoa's water systems found any of the chemicals during that round of testing, according to EPA data.

[RELATED: Cancer cluster fears cause Brevard to test water at 13 schools]

But a March 2018 Department of Defense report found all 28 groundwater samples recently taken at Patrick exceeded the EPA recommended level for fluorinated chemicals. The highest level detected at the base was 4.3 million parts per trillion.

Brevard Public Schools also ran tests, hiring a firm to sample tap water at 13 beachside schools. Those results are pending and expected to be discussed Aug. 5 at a community meeting at Satellite Beach Civic Center.

While, the EPA has not set a regulatory limit for the compounds, in 2016, it published a voluntary health advisory for them, warning that long-term exposure to the two chemicals at combined levels above 70 parts per trillion could be dangerous. One part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of a single grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Other studies show the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower levels.

Epidemiologists warn that definitive conclusions in cancer cluster investigations are unlikely.

[READ: Satellite Beach activist concerned about development on possibly contaminated land]

"With the tens of thousands of these sorts of events that have been reported, unfortunately, we've never learned anything about the causes of disease from those events," said Dr. David A. Savitz, an epidemiologist at Brown University, told FLORIDA TODAY this past June, when cancer concerns. 

"I can guarantee there are ZIP codes with higher rates of those diseases — in Florida," Savitz added. "There's a huge random element to it. That guarantees some areas will have very high rates, even if there's nothing (causing it)."