MOFFETT FIELD (CBS SF) -- When disaster strikes on a runway, fire suppressing foam can be a lifesaver. For decades, however, there was a hidden danger in the foam itself. The chemical agents in that foam are called fluorinated chemicals. They are much like the same chemicals that were used in products like Teflon and Scotchguard, until they were deemed a health threat by the Environmental Protection Agency.
"This is a contaminant that we know about, it's linked to several types of cancer," explains Bill Walker of the Environmental Working Group, an organization that has fought for years to prevent the spread of toxic chemicals.
Before the public was ever alerted to the health threats in PFCs, they were used in hundreds of products, from frying pans to firefighting foam. As for the foam, airports around the world, military and civilian, trained with the toxic agents over and over again.
"They just used a lot of the firefighting foam and really didn't think about it, they just washed into the water supplies, the creeks, lakes, and in the groundwater, drinking water," says Arlene Blum, with the Green Science Policy Institute. "These things are great for fighting fires, but the problem is that they never really go away."
Sure enough, the foam is still with us. Recent testing has found elevated levels of PFCs in the water treatment facility near San Francisco International Airport. Just up the bay from Moffett Field, contamination was found in the water at Cooley Landing in East Palo Alto.
Scientists can even trace those chemicals to the Marine Mammal Center, where state researchers have found harbor seals with some of the highest PFC levels in the world. Still, the biggest problems may be yet to come.
"We're really concerned that there's a lot more contamination out there in drinking water that we don't know about," says Walker, who says PFC concerns are spreading like a wildfire around America's former military bases. The Department of Defense is now testing more than 600 military sites across the country where the foam was used in crash training, and 85 of those sites are in California.
In some of those locations, like McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento County, PFCs have already been detected in the groundwater. By Walker's count, "there are 1.5 million people in California that we know of that are drinking this stuff in their drinking water."
California's Department of Toxic Substance Control is now tracking these chemicals from the contaminated water, right into the blood of the people who live nearby. "We have some elevated levels in drinking water and ground water. I'm sure it will affect the levels in human body. It stays in your body for a long time, it has very long half-life," says June-Soo Park, a researcher with the Department.
Park and his colleagues expect to publish more findings soon, just as the Department of Defense continues its environmental survey of California military sites.
Still outstanding are test results for the former Alameda Naval Air Station where fire training was done from 1973 to 1987. There, firefighting foam would have simply run off the tarmac and into San Francisco Bay.
Across California, however, the threat strikes right into groundwater and drinking water, and there is no definitive answer yet as to how bad the problem might be.
As Blum warns, "I think it's going to be a big clean-up. I've heard public health officials say it's going to be like lead and PCBs, the next big one in drinking water."
for more features.