New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science

NM Museum of Natural History & Science Curator collaborates on research showing impact of ’forever chemicals’ near Holloman Air Force Base

March 22, 2024

Stephen Hamway

Albuquerque, NM – New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science (NMMNHS) Bioscience Curator Dr. Jason Malaney played a key role in research that shows unexpectedly high levels of chemical contamination in wildlife at Holloman Air Force Base in Southern New Mexico. 

This new study, published in the journal Environmental Research, shows that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), including perfluorooctanosulfonic acid and perfluorooctoanoic acid, were found at dangerously high levels near Holloman AFB, outside Alamogordo. PFAS, sometimes referred to as ‘forever chemicals,’ concentrations were among the highest ever reported in animal tissues, and high levels have persisted for at least three decades. 

“In addition to showcasing the incredible work from our museum’s Bioscience department, this research underscores the value of collections and research capabilities for institutions of all sizes,” said NMMNHS Executive Director Dr. Anthony Fiorillo. “Our institution is proud to play a role in research that advances our understanding of the impact of forever chemicals on New Mexico wildlife and the potential implications for human health.” 

Malaney is a contributing author on the study, alongside researchers from the University of New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Cornell University, and other institutions. More information about the NMMNHS Bioscience Department is available HERE. The lead researcher is Dr. Christopher Witt, professor of biology at UNM and director of the University’s Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB).  

“While our exhibitions get much deserved attention, it is our research behind the scenes – in bioscience, paleontology, space science, and other fields – that sets our museum apart,” Malaney said. “Discoveries like this remind us that science is never static but constantly evolving through hard work and research.” 

For the study, Malaney and other researchers conducted over 2,000 tests on hundreds of museum specimens to measure tissue concentrations of 17 different PFAS across 23 species of mammals and migratory birds near Holloman. These specimens are primarily housed at MSB. These samples were collected in the area around Holloman Lake, located between Holloman Air Force Base and White Sands National Park, in the middle of the vast, dry Tularosa basin. The lake is part of a system of waste-water catchment ponds created by the U.S. Air Force, and act as a man-made oasis in this very dry region. 

Across 23 species of birds and mammals, PFAS concentrations averaged in the tens of thousands of parts per billion and more than 10,000 times greater than the levels recommended by the EPA. The team found that both aquatic and terrestrial species tended to be heavily contaminated, with the leading cause believed to be firefighting foam that was deployed over several decades, starting around 1970, by the U.S. Air Force. The foam contained a mix of toxic PFAS that have since been phased out.  

Natural history collections, like those housed at the NMMNHS and MSB, provided essential data vital to the study and were key to exposing the longevity of the problem. Historical specimens, for example, enabled the team to screen for PFAS in rodents collected on the base in 1994 during a different research project. Tissues from those rodents have been perfectly preserved by the MSB Division of Genomic Resources and showed high levels of PFAS, demonstrating the effects of long-term contamination and bioaccumulation of these chemicals in wildlife in the area.  

About the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science The New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science is a division of the Department of Cultural Affairs, under the leadership of the Board of Trustees of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. Programs and exhibits are generously supported by the New Mexico Museum of Natural History Foundation, through the generous support of donors. Established in 1986, the mission of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science is to preserve and interpret the distinctive natural and scientific heritage of our state through extraordinary collections, research, exhibits, and programs designed to ignite a passion for lifelong learning. The NMMNHS offers exhibitions, programs, and workshops in Geoscience, including Paleontology and Mineralogy, Bioscience, and Space Science. It is the Southwest’s largest repository for fossils and includes a Planetarium and a large format 3D DynaTheater. 

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