A new report released this week by the nonprofit Alaska Community Action on Toxics asks the state to do more testing of a dangerous group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substanceS.

According to the report, PFAS can build up in the body over time — they don’t break down and they never go away. The Environmental Protection Agency said PFAS have been linked to serious health problems including cancer.

The most common source of PFAS comes from firefighting foam that’s used to suppress fires at airports and military bases. The chemicals can leach into the ground and contaminate drinking water.

The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation has tested ground water near airports in the state considered at high risk for the problem and located at least nine communities where drinking water has been contaminated with PFAS. Levels higher than the EPA considers safe have also been found in ground water beneath Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, but that water is not used for drinking water. 

Denise Koch, Director of Spill Prevention and Response with the DEC, said the state has been investigating PFAS since 2009.

“We feel that PFAS is a health concern and that’s actually why the state has been really proactive in looking at PFAS and looking for PFAS,” Koch said.

But some say the state isn’t looking hard enough, at least not now.

Under the Walker administration, the DEC tested for several kinds of the dangerous chemicals. The Dunleavy administration has lowered the standards so that now the DEC is only testing for two of the most studied chemicals.

Koch said the state relies on guidance from organizations like the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, both of which are actively studying PFAS. She said the state could change its policies if new research from those agencies suggests it’s prudent.

“The science on PFAS is emerging and changing,” Koch said. “And as the science emerges, as the facts change, as the science changes, we’ll change accordingly.”

But some say waiting for the federal government to publish new standards is waiting too long. Among them Rep. Ivy Spohnholz, D- Anchorage.

“Relying on the federal government to keep us safe, knowing how long it takes the federal government to come to a decision concerns me,” said Spohnholz. “[...] What we know about biological research and science research is that it takes a very long time to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that something is happening. And we could have people who are ingesting cancer-causing carcinogens right now.”

Spohnholz said the decision to test for just two PFAS is putting Alaskans' health at risk adding that the issue is likely to get some attention during the upcoming legislative session.

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