Tag Archives: PFOA

PFAS News III

This is our third post on poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), that ubiquitous and troublesome family of 5,000 “contaminants of emerging concern.” In this post: the risk of PFAS in public drinking water systems, and the current state of affairs in Vermont.

PFAS in firefighting foam photo courtesy of pfascentral.org.

In Vermont, concern spiked after the 2016 discovery of PFOS and PFOA, two of the oldest and best-researched PFAS, in private wells in the Bennington area. The contamination was determined to be due to pollution by Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, which recently agreed to a $40 million settlement with the state.  One result was that, during the 2019 session, the Vermont Legislature gave PFAS close attention, emerging with Act 21, signed by Gov. Scott. The bill:

  • Requires testing of all public drinking water systems by December 1, 2019 (specifically, 650 public community water systems and non-transient, non-community water systems serving 25 or more people over a period of 6 months per year);
  • Establishes a drinking water health advisory level of 20 parts per trillion, in aggregate, of five PFAS, which, if exceeded, requires publication of a “do not drink” advisory and planning for remediation;
  • Mandates research into potential sources and impacts of PFAS over the next five years;
  • Gives the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources authority to establish drinking and surface water MCLs by, at the latest, January 1, 2024.
  • Full information on Act 21 and the Agency’s actions is available at https://dec.vermont.gov/pfas/pfoa

But is there really a significant risk to public drinking water systems?

The U.S. EPA’s “Third Unregulated Contaminant Rule Data Summary” of January, 2017 (surveying PFOA, PFOS, and four other PFAS from 2011 to 2016) reports on tests at 4,920 public water systems.  Very few tested as at or above minimum reference levels, ranging from .1% of sites for PFBS to 1.9% of sites for PFOS and 2.3% for PFOA.

On the other hand, that data is now three years old; only six types of PFAS were surveyed; and the health reference MCLs of 70 ppt were much higher than Vermont’s 20 ppt. 

More recently — May, 2019 — the Environmental Working Group and Northeast University, using data from the Pentagon and local water utilities, reported PFAS contamination at 610 sites in 43 states, including some public drinking water systems. 

Michigan, with 192 known contamination sites, was the most-impacted; however, of the 65 sites found to have MCLs over the federal limit of 70 ppt in a study conducted by the state in 2018, none were municipal systems. (Three school water systems did show contamination; the rest were military-related, industrial, firefighting, or mining sites.)

Drinking water processing plant at Highland Reservoir, Yorba Linda, Cal., which found reportable levels of PFAS in August, 2019, testing.

But the data keeps coming in – and it merits close attention.  The August 30, 2019 Orange County Register reports finding “reportable levels” of PFAS in 11 source wells operated by Southern California public drinking water agencies – levels that will require remediation (and alternate water sourcing) under newly-legislated limits.  In Los Angeles County, 32 of 138 county wells exceeded limits, resulting in closure of 4 wells.

The best solution for PFAS is prevention and interception at high-concentration sites. But can these “forever chemicals” be eliminated from water that’s already contaminated?

Yes. Granular activated charcoal filters and reverse osmosis are being used to successfully remove PFAS in Michigan, California, and elsewhere.  Of course, water quality professionals and regulators have to ask: But at what cost, to whom? 

New research developments also have promise, as high-tech solutions are being devised to address the problem.  At the international CleanUp 2019 conference, as of this writing being held in Australia (Sept. 8 – 12), the company AECOM unveiled DE-FLUOROTM, a process of electrochemical oxidation that removes 90% to 100% of PFAS. 

Admittedly, only time will tell if the technology proves viable, affordable, workable in diverse contexts, and without unforeseen effects of its own. But AECOM is likely only the first major corporation to be drawn by the lure of marketable — profitable — remediation products/processes.

All of which leaves us wondering what we can expect from the current round of testing in Vermont. The answer: Like everything else about PFAS, we’ll just have to wait and find out!

GMWEA would love to hear from water system operators and administrators about their experiences with the testing process!  Please send perspectives to Daniel Hecht, executive director, at dan.hecht@gmwea.org.

To return to GMWEA’s website, click here.

PFAS!

PFAS!  The acronym brings up goosebumps on citizenry, regulators, and water quality professionals alike.  Though these human-made chemicals have been around for 70 years, they’ve stepped into the emerging toxins spotlight this year, and concern is growing.

Here’s a sampling of news headlines from throughout the U.S. on July 28:

  • Pentagon Announces PFAS Task Force to Address Contamination (EWG)
  • Farmers Are Losing Everything After “Forever Chemicals” Turn Up In Their Food (BuzzFeed News)
  • New York to Get Federal Funds for PFAS Health Study (Lexington Herald Leader)
  • Water System Operators Told to Test for PFAS Contamination (Greenwich Time)
  • Three Connecticut Rivers to be Tested This Summer for PFAS Chemical Pollution (Hartford Courant)
  • “Markedly higher” Levels of 2 PFAS Found in the Blood of NC Residents (WECTV)
  • Yakutat Officials Wary of State’s PFAS Double Standard (Alaska Public Media News)

This post will lay out the basics on PFAS; future posts will discuss current efforts by Vermont and other New England states to learn more about PFAS and to reduce human health risks associated with them.

What are PFAS, and why are they nicknamed “the forever chemicals”? 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances comprise a family of almost 5,000 compounds, being invented and manufactured continuously since 1940.  They’re called “forever chemicals” because that’s what they were designed to be – highly durable, resistant to grease, solvents, biodegradation, photodegradation, and heat.

They’re used in hundreds products, notably non-stick cookware, heat-resistant industrial materials (and processes), water- and stain-resistant sprays, carpets, food packaging, dental floss, paints, cleaning products, and firefighting foams. 

That means we have lots of opportunities to be exposed to them.  During Congressional testimony on July 24, Glenn Evers, a DuPont chemist for 22 years, claimed that 99% of Americans have PFAS in their blood and body cells.  And, Evers warned, “these chemicals stay in your blood and don’t leave. . . . there is not a single bacteria, mold, or virus, anything that will ever break this molecule down.”  He went on to say, “You can’t kill this beast.   You can only control it.”

How are humans exposed?

As the above suggests, we’re exposed from the moment we fry our breakfast eggs on a non-stick pan until we floss our teeth before bedtime.  The US EPA lists the following as the most common means or sources of exposure:

  • Eating food packaged in PFAS-containing materials or food grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water
  • Eating fish or wild game with high concentrations of PFAS
  • Inhaling or having skin contact with commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, etc., containing PFAS
  • Inhaling or having skin contact in workplaces, such as production facilities or industries using PFAS (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery)
  • Drinking water – whether from a well, a municipal supply, or bottled – that has been contaminated or packaged using materials/equipment containing PFAS
  • For babies, drinking breast milk from mothers who have been exposed to PFAS

What are the health dangers?

Definitive answers may not be available, yet.  While concern is universal among health authorities, high-confidence clinical literature is hard to find.  This is in part due to the fact that, with new PFAS continually being invented, there hasn’t been time to assess their health effects. 

PFOA and PFOS have been better studied; in lab animals, according to the US EPA, they have been shown to affect function of reproductive, developmental, endocrine, and immunological systems, and have caused tumors.

Among humans, the most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:

  • low infant birth weights
  • reduced immune response
  • changes in liver function
  • kidney and testicular cancer (for PFOA), and
  • thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS)

But which of the 5,000 PFAS are most toxic?  What degree of health impairment results from what level of exposure, over how long?  Is there a safe level?  What products, foods, or circumstances cause the greatest uptake by the human body?  How can consumers minimize their exposure?

Well, as the ATSDR – Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry – explains, mildly, “Scientists are still learning about the health effects of exposure to mixtures of PFAS.”

Next: PFAS in water and wastewater, and what the EPA and states are doing about it.

To return to GMWEA’s website, CLICK HERE.