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Suffolk to test water near Brookhaven lab for firefighting foam contaminant

Photos included in Brookhaven National Lab's presentation to

Photos included in Brookhaven National Lab's presentation to a group last year showed firefighting foam spilling onto the ground during training exercises in the 1960s.

Suffolk County will test drinking water at about 97 homes south of Brookhaven National Laboratory for contamination associated with firefighting foam, almost six months after a citizens advisory board expressed concern that the emerging contaminant had spread outside the lab.

Suffolk will contact property owners in the East Yaphank neighborhood beginning this week and collect water samples "as early as next week," according to a letter sent Monday by Brookhaven National Laboratory director Doon Gibbs to the Community Advisory Council.

“This is good news," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment and a member of the community advisory council. She added: "It’s been six months that the public's been at risk, which is very concerning.”

The federal research facility also has agreed to pay for the tests, which will measure six per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS. Firefighting foams used at the lab from the 1960s until 2008 include perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, known as PFOS, which the state is expected to regulate this year.

Groundwater tests at Brookhaven National Laboratory have shown high levels of the contaminant PFOS on the base and around the perimeter. Suffolk County health officials had recommended the testing of the private wells outside the lab, but the lab said in December it was consulting with state and federal regulators on whether the testing was necessary.

"The issues are complex, and we’re pleased to be moving forward quickly together with the county," Will Safer, a spokesman for the laboratory, said in an email.

Suffolk County Department of Health spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern said in an email that the length of time was "due to the requirement for a formal legal agreement that required input from both legal departments."

The group of chemicals increasingly have become a concern among regulators and environmentalists. Possible health effects from high exposure include liver damage, decreased fertility, and developmental delays in fetuses and children, as well as links to cancer, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The tests, which will be performed at a private lab contracted by BNL, will detect down to two parts per trillion. A state panel of experts recommended a drinking water standard of 10 parts per trillion for PFOS and a related chemical, PFOA, commonly found in products meant to repel water, grease and oil.

The letter from Gibbs said the results would be shared with the county, though it was unclear how long it would take to get the test results.

Testing wells installed near the lab's current firehouse found levels of PFOA and PFOS up to 12,400 parts per trillion, and at 5,370 parts per trillion at the lab's former firehouse, the lab has said. Those two sites were believed to be the "primary locations" where firefighting foam was used during training.

Historical photos included in the lab's presentation to the advisory group last year show firefighting foam spilling onto the ground during training exercises in 1966 and a demonstration of a fire suppression system in 1970.

The contamination has been found at three of the five drinking water supply wells at BNL; two at levels of up to 27 parts per trillion, and one at up to 70.4 parts per trillion. Other samples were below 70 parts per trillion, which is the current EPA health advisory level for PFOS.

Private wells are not regularly tested or treated, and are generally shallower than those drilled by public water providers, meaning health officials fear they're more susceptible to pollution.

Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), whose district includes the lab, said he's happy the testing will take place, but said if PFOS contamination is found at the homes, the lab shouldn't immediately be blamed.

"You can’t automatically assume it came from the lab," he said.

BNL is a research institution funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Energy, with almost 3,000 employees and 4,000 visiting researchers studying physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, and applied science.

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