BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – Greg Bossart finds them in dolphins in the Indian River. Russ Lowers encounters them in the blood of the alligators he snares at Kennedy Space Center. And, perhaps, it is no surprise that they also lurk in the fish that dolphins and gators eat like the mullet Doug Adams nets nearby.
All three biologists and their colleagues are independently discovering that the toxic compounds from once-widely used firefighting foams are present throughout the local food chain. Apex predators — those at the top of the chain, like dolphins and gators — store them in their bodies at higher concentrations with worrying implications.
These are the same substances recently found in groundwater in Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach; the same chemicals that worry many who live, work or go to school near Patrick Air Force Base and Kennedy Space Center, News 6 partner Florida Today reported.
What scientists say they are uncovering in dolphins, mullet and alligators could be key to determining whether the compounds — known as fluorinated chemicals — are behind a spike of various cancers that have been cropping up on the Space Coast barrier islands for nearly five decades.
What Bossart and other scientists have been gradually unraveling is a complex ecological detective story.
Their research follows frightening clues that indicate human health also is imperiled by the chemical waste from the Space Race and U.S. military training exercises. It is the unintended health and ecological fallout from America's dominance in space and on the battlefield that threatens more than just wildlife.
"It is disturbing what we're seeing. I think we've known about it for years," said Bossart, who studied lagoon dolphin at FAU Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce before becoming chief veterinary officer at Georgia Aquarium. "This is a very complex problem in a very complex ecosystem."
Bossart and other biologists have been warning for more than 15 years to heed the signs they have been finding in lagoon wildlife. The unexpected tumors and other immune-related diseases researchers now see in marine mammals in particular are considered by biologists as likely proof of the dangers that pollution poses to people.
For decades, scientists found an alphabet soup of chemical suspects used to ease military and space operations: DDT, PCBs and TCE. The latest suspect — perfluoroalkyl acids, the key ingredients in fire foams, Teflon and many nonstick, waterproof coatings — has been turning up in scientific studies at and around the space center for years.
While other contaminants such as pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, and flame retardants (PBDEs) tend to collect in fat tissue, fire-foam chemicals build up in blood and organs, such as the liver. And like pesticides, PCBs and flame retardants, they can multiply in greater concentrations as they move up the food chain in larger animals — potentially us.
Scientific studies link the compounds to testicular cancer, kidney cancer, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The association with other diseases is less certain.
Lab studies on rats and mice show that fluorinated chemicals can change liver physiology and blood cholesterol causing enlarged livers, wasting syndromes and toxic effects to the immune and nervous systems.
Biologists found the compounds in lagoon dolphin blood over a decade ago.
A paper published last year in the journal Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found blood of alligators caught between 2012 and 2015 at KSC tested at the highest levels of toxic fluorinated chemicals ever measured in the species.
In a separate study, published in the journal Chemosphere last year, Lowers and his colleagues found alligators with some of the highest plasma flourinated compounds were caught next to the Shuttle Landing Facility fire house, as well as the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout retention pond.
The study provided yet more proof of widespread contamination from the same compounds fueling cancer fearsin Satellite Beach and Cocoa Beach. The most recent revelation that mullet harbor the toxins in their flesh further strengthens the case that the fish that lagoon dolphins (and people) eat are of concern as well.
A doctor's mission
The most recent alarm about the impact of fluorinated chemicals was sounded when Dr. Julie Greenwalt, a Jacksonville oncologist and cancer survivor who graduated from Satellite High School, began questioning whether local environmental exposures could have contributed to her illness and others cancers in the area in recent years. She so far has confirmed 54 cancer cases since 2010 in the Satellite Beach area, all in people younger than 40, and more than 250 cases in all in the area since 1960.
Greenwalt and other cancer survivors point to recent federal testing that found high concentrations of fluorinated chemicals from firefighting foam in groundwater at Patrick Air Force Base.
The two chemicals of most concern, perfluorooctane sulfonate and perfluorooctanoic acid, were widely used in fire extinguishing foams, including at Patrick until a few years ago. Their use has been phased out but the compounds remain in the environment for decades and are not regulated.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to set a regulatory limit for the compounds. In 2016, the agency published a voluntary health advisory for them, warning that long-term exposure at levels above 70 parts per trillion, total, could increase the risk of cancer and other illnesses. One part per trillion is roughly the equivalent of a single grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
Local water systems tested clean of the compounds, which were among 28 chemicals the EPA required them to test for between 2013 and 2015. Neither Melbourne nor Cocoa's water systems found any of the chemicals during that testing requirement, EPA data show.
But a March 2018 Department of Defense report found all 28 groundwater samples taken at Patrick exceeded the EPA lifetime health advisory level for fluorinated chemicals. The highest level detected at the base was 4.3 million parts per trillion.
Then earlier this month, a day after the city of Satellite Beach announced it found the same chemicals in three test wells, Cocoa Beach samples showed the compounds in its groundwater at levels as much as six times higher than in neighboring Satellite Beach.
While Cocoa Beach's and Satellite Beach's drinking water comes from sources on the mainland, the discovery of the toxic chemicals is fueling worry that the barrier island's water table could be seriously contaminated with huge health implications.
Dolphins raised biggest red flag
Years before the latest discoveries, the blood and cells of lagoon dolphins were trying to tell us something, biologists say.
"Twenty years ago, we didn't see neoplastic (tumor) diseases in marine mammals," Bossart said. "It's very disturbing. I personally feel it's a reflection of our poor stewardship of the environment."
Few studies have examined the chemicals in North American wildlife. Studies of the compounds in wild reptiles and amphibians looked mostly at frogs and sea turtles.
But Bossart finds that dolphins — considered by scientists as good proxies for humans— ingest the same cancer-causing chemicals as those near Patrick Air Force Base, where soldiers for decades sprayed firefighting foams on base and buried untold wastes nearby.
Since 2003, Bossart and a team of 40 researchershave examined and released 360 bottlenose dolphins, 246 of them from the lagoon and the rest in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.
Dolphins captured near Merritt Island, especially, seem in ill health, and researchers for years have pointed to partially treated sewage and runoff as the possible causes. They find dolphins with tumors, cancer, immune suppression and other illnesses formerly unheard of in the animals.
Because there is more industry in South Carolina, dolphins there test higher for the fluorinated compounds than those in the lagoon. But lagoon dolphins might be more vulnerable to the chemicals, the researchers say, because dolphins here face more chronic stress from toxic algae blooms and sewage pollution.
The team's 2012 study found 93 percent of lagoon dolphin had perfluoroalkyl sulfonates in their blood. Those compounds are used for heat, chemical and abrasion resistance and can suppress disease resistance. The compounds also are associated with sewage.
Concern over these emerging contaminants prompted Florida Department of Environmental Protection to set up a panel of scientists to examine the issue. The so-called Emerging Substances of Concern Working Group generated a report in 2008 outlining strategies for tackling the problem. But budget constraints and the novelty of the contaminants stalled monitoring and research efforts.
Cancer-causing chemicals strike staple-diet lagoon fish
Doug Adams, a biologist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, nets mullet near the runway where space shuttles once landed.
His study, published earlier this year along with Lowers and several South Carolina researchers, is the latest to find high levels of fluorinated compounds in local wildlife. They detected the chemicals in the muscle and the roe (eggs) of mullet — a fish near the bottom of the food web. The health implications for humans, mullet and the ecosystem remain unclear.
"What that study was looking at was one area that is an indicator of reproductive fitness," Adams said.
The mullet near the shuttle landing strip produced similar numbers of eggs, the study found, but the viability of those eggs and impacts of the chemicals on the mullet themselves are unknown.
"We did not find any particular impact on fecundity, but that doesn't mean there won't be any other ramifications down the road," Adams added.
The chemicals were up to four times higher in livers of mullet caught near the space shuttle landing facility than in those caught in Banana River, the study found.
"This is not an unexpected result because the SLF site has held fire training events nearby using aqueous firefighting foams in the past," the authors wrote.
Given the levels of fluorinated chemical levels found in the fish, people could eat from one to 16 mullet a month from the KSC area, based on Michigan's health guideline for the chemicals without likely ill effect. But there is no agreement on what safe levels of human consumption of fluorinated compounds really are.
Alligators have highest levels ever recorded
Way up the food chain, at Kennedy Space Center, alligators reign supreme. Whatever gets into the fish and crabs winds up gulped down by a gator.
A study published last year by Russ Lowers, of Integrated Mission Support Services, an environmental consultant to NASA, and researchers from South Carolina, found alligators at KSC at the highest blood plasma burden of perfluorooctane sulfonate ever seen in the species.
The perfluorooctane sulfonate measured in alligators at the refuge ranged from just 6 nanograms per gram to 2,140 nanograms per gram — "the highest PFOS concentration yet measured in a crocodilian species," the authors noted.
While the reproductive and other health effects on alligators remain unclear, to Bossart, who has seen similar compounds in the lagoon dolphins for years, it's no surprise.
All the common clues coursing through the veins of our local animal kingdom have long alarmed him. Bossart has tried to warn us for years. Now he calls the Indian River Lagoon the "poster child for environmental stress" and all the recent findings a call to action.
“Not recognizing the possibility of a common relationship between (these chemical) contaminants in dolphins and humans which share the same Florida coastal environment would be refusing to acknowledge or confront the common problem," Bossart said. "We would have to share the wisdom of this approach with the ostrich that buries its head in the sand.”