LANL continues search for ‘forever chemicals’

Laura Paskus

April 26, 2021

Toxic “forever chemicals are present at northern New Mexico’s nuclear weapons laboratory—but more studies and sampling are necessary to understand the extent of their reach. And an error in the database Los Alamos National Laboratory uses to let the public know about hazardous material has been corrected since an earlier story by NMPBS reported that high levels of the PFAS chemicals had been found in water samples.   

A search of the Intellus environmental monitoring database at LANL earlier this year revealed high levels of PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, in some waste and water samples taken at the lab. But lab officials say themischaracterized those high samples—and have since reclassified them within Intellus New Mexico.

Various entities contribute to Intellus, which is used by regulators and the public to track where hazardous chemicals or radioactive substances have been released into the environment.   

“This issue has actually been corrected, so if you were to go in and pull that same information today, those results would actually not show up,” said Kassidy Boorman, Pollution Prevention Program lead at Los Alamos. “Because they’ll be under the waste category, they will no longer be appearing as if they are groundwater samples.” 

That’s not to say PFAS aren’t among the toxic substances present at the nuclear weapons laboratory.  

As part of a site-wide investigation, officials say they’ve found PFAS in soil and sediment samples in Technical Area 1and within waters and sludge of the LANL Wastewater Treatment Plant.

PFAS in DARHT dirt

In response to our reporting, lab officials and experts agreed to an on-the-record conversation about PFAS and testing at the lab. During a March conference call, and a follow-up email, Boorman and other lab officials explained they are investigating where products containing PFAS have been used and if the chemicals are present in the environment.

PFAS are a family of thousands of toxic substances invented prior to World War II and used in a range of industrial and commercial products. They’ve been nicknamed “forever chemicals” because they bioaccumulate—moving up the food chain—and they persist in the environment indefinitely. PFAS, which are characterized by their strong carbon-fluorine bonds, are not broken down by natural processes like sunlight, water, or microbes.

“As soon as LANL became aware of PFAS as an emerging contaminant, which was 2018, we took immediate actions to investigate the possible presences of PFAS on site,” claimed Boorman.

That work includes searching various lab archives—including paper archives from the 1980s and earlier—to learn what products containing PFAS were used at the labhistorically orare used todayAnd in 2019, they began sampling for the chemicals. 

Some of the commercial products containing PFAS that have been used at the lab include3M Fluorad FC-95, 3M Fluorad FC-129, and 3M Fluorad FC-143. These are used, she said, with plating vats, photographic processes, and soldering systems.

“Additionally, when searching our chemical database records, we came across Buckeye three percent aqueous film forming foam,” Boorman said

Aqueous film forming foam, or AFFF, contains some of the most well-known kinds of PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to establish regulatory standards of PFAS, but it has set a lifetime health advisory for the two higher-profile substances – perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) – at 70 parts per trillion in drinking water.

At Los Alamos,officials have identified three buildings outfitted withAFFF fire suppression systems containing PFAS. This includes two active systems at Technical Area 15, including the Dual Axis Radiographic Hydrodynamic Test (DARHT) Facility and the Radiographic Support Lab, and a building with an inactive system at Technical Area 35.

And they have found PFAS near the DARHT building: “We did see PFAS present in the soil and sediment, except for on the north side of the facility,” Boorman saidSamples ranged from 165 parts per trillion to 42,700 parts per trillion.

The EPA’s 70 parts per trillion lifetime advisory for exposure to PFAS applies only to drinking water. That’s different from an enforceable regulatory limit. There are neither advisories nor standards for surface or ground water, nor for acceptable levels of the toxins in soil, sediment, or vegetation.

“We are still establishing the source of this PFAS we are looking at,” she said of the testing around the DARHT building. “Additionally, we cannot make interpretations at this time as to what those levels mean in the soil and sediment. We can just say that they are present.”

The two active fire suppression systems at TA-15 are tested quarterly, said Boorman. During those tests, water and AFFF are released into storage vessels. It was samples from those storage vessels that revealed the high levels of PFAS which they erroneously included in the Intellus database as water samples earlier this year.She compared these vessels with the tote tanks used on landscaping trucks, but larger.

With respect to the other building, atTA-35, Boorman said it’s an inactive system that has been locked down, though there will be additional sampling. 

She added, “So I’m not going to comment any further beyond that for that system.”

No info yet on employee exposure

Lab officials told NMPBS they do not currently have plans to notify people who might have been exposed to AFFF as firefighters or through work in or near buildings where AFFF might have been deployed. They don’t know when they will finish the site-wide PFAS inventory. 

I think in a situation like this, obviously we have to understand the nature of the problem before we can address any kinds of actual safety concerns because as we gather information and understand what employees had been working with, that’s when we’ll be able to develop more information,” said Peter Hyde, senior communications specialist at Los Alamos. At the moment, the issue is so new, we haven’t compiled any information on employee exposure.”  

Studies link exposure to PFAS to a range of health problems, including reproductive and developmental problems, liver and kidney disease, and immune system problems. It's also been tied to high cholesterol, low infant birth weights, thyroid hormone disruption, early-pregnancy miscarriages, and cancer—including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and kidney, testicular, prostate, and ovarian cancers. Some of these studies date back to the 1980s, when manufacturers like DuPont and 3M learned their workers were being sickened. 

Though LANL began its efforts to study PFAS in 2018, elsewhere the U.S. government has been grappling with its use of PFAS-laden firefighting foams for many years.   

In 2007, the U.S. Air Force began replacing these foams at its European bases after the European Union’s 2006 ban on the manufacture and use of certain products containing PFAS. Then, in 2016, it began replacing its use of those foams at U.S. bases—and the Pentagon began investigating where it has used AFFF. In 2018, it notified New Mexico state regulators that its use of AFFF at Cannon and Holloman Air Force bases had contaminated groundwater with PFAS. Investigations are also underway at Fort Wingate, Army National Guard armories in Rio Rancho and Roswell, the Army Aviation Support Facility in Santa Fe, and White Sands Missile Range. 

‘Very high numbers, but it’s isolated’ 

At LANL, scientists also sampled water and sludge from the lab’s wastewater treatment plant. Boorman said that one sample of water entering the plant showed the presence of three types of PFAS at 84.6 parts per trillion and a sample of treated wastewater was at 38.1 parts per trillion.  

Meanwhile, sludge sampled from the plant hit 30,400 parts per trillion. 

“It’s known nationally that wastewater treatment plants are a common place to see PFAS,” said Boorman. People use products containing PFAS; these go down the drain and end up being processed and accumulating.  

The Los Alamos plant is no different, she said: “We feel this is consistent with other sanitary wastewater treatment systems,” she said, adding, “All we can say at this point is we’re seeing these levels, but interpreting sources, etc., is still being determined.” 

Currently, said Hyde, the sludge is “not going anywhere” and is being held on site. “It’s not entering the environment,” he said. “Those are very high numbers, but it’s isolated.”  

According to Boorman, the AFFF storage vessels—the ones that showed high levels and were erroneously included in the Intellus database—will also remain on site.   

“We had actually identified a facility to accept these storage vessels as waste,” she said. “However, when we become aware of PFAS as an emerging contaminant, we halted the shipment of those storage vessels and opted to keep them on site until we could find the most environmentally-friendly disposal path for those storage vessels.”

If you’ve been affected by PFAS contamination in your community here in New Mexico, call our tip line at (505) 433-7242. To read more coverage of PFAS in New Mexico visit “Groundwater War: New Mexico’s Toxic Threat,” which includes a timeline of events and studies on PFAS.