Persistent pollutants hit record highs in Holloman base wildlife

Credit: Michael J. Andersen

In the vast, dry landscapes of New Mexico, an unexpected environmental crisis has been unfolding, shedding light on the pervasive and lasting impact of human activities on wildlife.

Researchers from The University of New Mexico’s Museum of Southwestern Biology have uncovered alarming levels of chemical contamination in the fauna of Holloman Air Force Base, located near Alamogordo, N.M.

Their discoveries, published in Environmental Research, reveal a silent threat that could have far-reaching implications for both animals and humans.

At the heart of their study is Holloman Lake, a man-made oasis nestled between the military base and the pristine expanses of White Sands National Park.

This lake, part of a wastewater catchment system created by the Air Force, has become a crucial habitat for a wide variety of birds and mammals.

However, this seemingly idyllic wetland harbors a dangerous secret: high concentrations of “forever chemicals,” or per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are notorious for their persistence in the environment and their potential to cause a slew of health problems, including cancer and issues with development, reproduction, and the immune and endocrine systems.

The study’s findings are particularly shocking, with PFAS levels in the wildlife there reaching tens of thousands of parts per billion across 23 different species.

To put this into perspective, consider that dairy cattle in Clovis, N.M., were destroyed because their milk contained PFAS at levels less than six parts per billion.

The source of this contamination is believed to be firefighting foam used in training exercises at the base since around 1970.

PFAS from the foam accumulated in the lake’s water and mud, entering the food chain and affecting a wide range of species, from aquatic birds to desert rodents.

The research team conducted over 2000 measurements to track how PFAS spread through the ecosystem, affecting various species differently based on their habitats, diets, and physiologies.

This intricate web of contamination illustrates the complex pathways through which these chemicals can infiltrate ecosystems and eventually reach humans.

One of the most striking aspects of this research is its use of natural history collections. By analyzing tissues from rodents collected on the base in 1994, the team was able to show that high levels of PFAS contamination have been present for decades.

This long-term perspective highlights the enduring nature of PFAS pollution and its potential to impact generations of wildlife and humans alike.

The implications of this study extend beyond environmental concerns. Holloman Lake is a popular spot for hunting and recreation, yet the research suggests that consuming wild game from this area could pose serious health risks due to PFAS contamination.

This finding underscores the need for further research to fully understand the human health risks associated with PFAS exposure in the region.

As we grapple with the consequences of PFAS pollution, the story of Holloman Lake serves as a stark reminder of the lasting impact human activities can have on the environment.

It also highlights the importance of natural history collections in understanding and addressing environmental and health challenges.

As efforts to mitigate the damage and protect the health of both wildlife and humans continue, the lessons learned from Holloman Lake will undoubtedly play a crucial role in guiding future actions.

The research findings can be found in Environmental Research.

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