Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) didn’t even exist before the 1940s. Small amounts of the potentially toxic chemicals are now found, according to the Centers for Disease Control …
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) didn’t even exist before the 1940s. Small amounts of the potentially toxic chemicals are now found, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in the blood of just about every U.S. citizen, in rainwater and in many municipal water supplies.
PFAS are a group of hundreds of chemicals used in numerous products. Two of the most harmful PFAS compounds are PFOA, formerly used to make the cookware coating Teflon, and PFOS, formerly used to make the water and stain repellant Scotchgard. PFAS are also used in firefighting foams; this is what caused the contamination of the municipal water supplies in Hoosick Falls and Newburgh, NY.
A new report from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) says that PFAS have now been found in many more places than previously thought, including dozens of U.S. cities. “Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S.,” the report says. That would include the Delaware River, which is a drinking water source for Trenton, Philadelphia and other municipalities, and the New York City Reservoirs, which hold that city’s water. The study sampled 44 water supplies in 31 states, and only one had no detectable level of PFAS.
PFAS are called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. Instead, they accumulate readily in the human body and stay there for years. According to the CDC, “PFAS have been found in the environment and in the blood of humans and animals worldwide. Most people in the United States have one or more specific PFAS in their blood, especially PFOS and PFOA.”
How did PFAS get in our blood? It happens when people drink contaminated water, eat contaminated fish and breathe air with contaminated dust. Even eating plants that have been grown in contaminated soil can transfer PFAS to your body. Also, EWG reports that PFAS chemicals are used “in coatings on carpets and clothing, in microwave popcorn bags and on fast-food wrappers. Most waterproof or stain-repellent clothing is coated with them.”
So what does ingestion of PFAS into a human body do? The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) says, “Some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown that PFAS may interfere with the body’s natural hormones, increase cholesterol levels, affect the immune system [and] increase the risk of some cancers.”
The environmental group Earthjustice is not so cautious about linking PFAS to negative health outcomes. “Studies of the best-known PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS, show links to kidney cancer and testicular cancer, as well as endocrine disruption in humans. Scientists have also discovered unusual clusters of serious medical effects in communities with heavily PFAS-contaminated water.”
CDC and ATSDR announced in December 2019 that they were beginning a multi-site health study to investigate the relationship between drinking water contaminated with PFAS and human health. The two federal agencies gave grants of $1 million each to seven different universities to help with the study. In the meantime, however, critics say that federal agencies have covered up (www.bit.ly/chemical-pollution) a previous study that shows it takes much lower levels than previously believed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for PFAS in the environment to become dangerous.
The EPA was first notified that PFAS contamination represented a health risk by the company 3M in 1998. A couple of years later, the EPA received studies from the company documenting the risk. To date, however, the EPA has not officially determined what a safe contaminant level of PFAS would be in drinking water. In 2016, the agency did issue an advisory that said a safe level for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water would be about 70 parts per trillion (PPT). But environmentalists and researchers say that a more acceptable safe level would be one PPT.
With no federal regulation in place, some states have either proposed or adopted their own safe levels. In New York, there is a proposal to set 10 PPT as the limit, but that has not yet been adopted.
In Pennsylvania, as in 32 other states, there is no safe level designated. A result of this is manufacturers that use PFAS are free to dump them into municipal sewer systems without notifying the municipality, even though most sewer systems can’t remove them from the water.
A post on the EPA website says the agency is moving forward with “maximum contaminant level process,” but there is no timeline in place for that process to be completed, and the EPA should be moving faster on this.