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Our view: Answers needed over water issue around former air base

Something appears to be in the water around the former Reese Air Force Base area, and speculation and conjecture are filling a void where concrete answers are needed.

As our recent story reported, residents in the area have theories about why people have suffered from maladies ranging from high cholesterol to kidney failure and cancer. They have repeatedly voiced their concerns in public forums, wondering about people dying too young and animals suddenly being stricken sick.

They say something is in the water – and the U.S. Air Force has said as much, sort of, as more than 100 former and current Air Force bases have been found to be responsible for contaminating nearby supplies of drinking water.

USAF officials agree that groundwater in some places around the former base have high levels of substances called PFAS, which were contained in a foam used by the Air Force since 1970 to extinguish fires. These PFAS are manmade chemicals that are resistant to heat, water and oil, according to our story. The Environmental Protection Agency says the chemicals are present in some 1 percent of the nation’s water supply.

For their part, Air Force officials have said they do not know the health impacts of consuming large amounts of the chemicals, a position that residents find frustrating at best and tone-deaf at worst. Not helping matters was the decision of a Texas Department of State Health Services toxicologist declining a media interview and perhaps shed light on the issue. Conspiracy theories often blossom in the aftermath of institutional silence.

“It’s easy to say there’s no adverse health effects when you refuse to look,” Josh Brown, a resident in the area of the former air base, said in our story. “Why aren’t they looking at people who’ve been drinking this water to look for health effects? They’re skirting around the issue of health.”

Progress may be on the horizon as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry disclosed they are beginning to examine human exposure to PFAS, according to our story. Their work presumably will include people from around Reese and other bases in what is being called a first-of-its-kind study that will take place next year.

According to our story, almost 500 drinking water wells have been sampled around the former Air Force base with 222 private wells and three public wells exceeding the EPA’s Lifetime Health Advisory levels for at least two toxic substances.

The USAF has installed almost 200 water treatment systems in work it expects to conclude this month, but other wells are also being sampled. According to a spokesman, the Air Force has spent more than $12 million to elevate drinking water around the base to acceptable standards.

While these efforts are commendable, they gloss over what area residents really want – simple answers to what they believe are simple questions. If they have been exposed to PFAS for decades, it’s long past time for the Air Force to step up and be transparent about the chemicals, their effects on humans and the steps they will take to remedy the situation through action and, where necessary, compensation.

Here’s the quandary: Residents can’t say the chemicals have caused their health problems, but they can’t get anyone to say the chemicals haven’t caused all their issues. What they’d like more than anything are answers, and, after all this time, it seems they’re entitled.

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