Nationally, there are growing concerns about PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances). This is a general overview of PFAS and things you should know about them.
What is PFAS?
PFAS is a group of over 3,000 man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. They were originally developed as part of the Manhattan Project to enrich uranium. PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries world-wide since their development by 3M in the 1940’s. DuPont began using PFOA to make Teflon coatings in 1950’s. PFAS chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body – meaning they don’t break down and can accumulate over time. The national average blood level of PFOA analytes is 2.1 ppb and they have a 2 to 4 year half-life in the human body. The national average blood level of PFOS analytes is 6.3 ppb with a 5 to 6 year half-life in the human body (note that testing levels are in parts per trillion). There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects.
What are the health effects of PFAS?
Studies have shown an association between increased PFOA and PFOS blood levels and an increased risk for several health effects, including effects on the liver and the immune system, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, thyroid disorders, pregnancy-induced hypertension and preeclampsia, and cancer (testicular and kidney).
Where can PFAS be found?
PFAS may be in drinking water, food, indoor dust, some consumer products, and workplaces. Blood serum concentrations of PFASs are higher in workers and individuals living near facilities that use or produce PFASs than for the general population. People living near large airports (fire-fighting foam) or military installations are more likely to be exposed to PFAS chemicals as well. Pathways of exposure include ingestion of food (Teflon coated pans) and water, use of consumer products or inhalation of PFAS-containing particulate matter (e.g., soils and dust) or vapor phase precursors. Some food packaging such as popcorn bags, fast food containers, and pizza boxes are common sources of PFAS ingestion as well. They are also prevalent in cosmetics, fabric softeners, Scotch Guard, Gore-Tex, and some sun screen products.
Public Water Supply Concerns
You should have reasons of potential concern if your surface water intake is downstream from: an airport, a military base, a PFAS-manufacturing facility, another locality’s WWTP, an industrial area, and areas which had legacy contamination (could be tanker fire; warehouse fire, etc.) There are reasons for potential concern for ground water sources if they are near: an airport or military base, a PFAS-manufacturing facility, a landfill, and/or a river that contains PFAS. Pumping water from wells can lead to drawing PFAS from the river into the aquifer. It should be noted that private residential wells are also susceptible to contamination as well. This raises a myriad of issues relative to public communications, cost of testing, and subsequent remedial actions and who is responsible for them and their cost.
Public Wastewater Plant Concerns
Wastewater plant operations need to be cognizant of their pretreatment program accepting industrial waste from: electroplating & metal finishing facilities, plastic and coating manufacturing, semiconductor and photolithography, oil refineries and railyards, landfill sending leachate for treatment, and surface water intakes located downstream of discharge. In addition, wastewater plants may run into issues of landfills not accepting sludge from WWTP with (elevated) PFAS levels because in some cases, downgradient drinking water wells have been found to have elevated PFAS levels. There is also growing concern about contamination of source water from land application of solids containing PFAS analytes.
There is no standardized test that can quantitate all known PFAS compounds. EPA recently updated Method 537.1 in November, 2018 to provide for the quantitation of 18 PFAS compounds. Individual laboratories can create their own custom methods, which often cannot be readily verified by other laboratories. There is significant opportunity for sample contamination during the sample collection process and extreme care must be taken when samples are obtained. There is potential PFAS contamination from lab gloves, sample containers, and tubing built into analytical instruments. PFAS has intentionally been added to personal healthcare products and cross-contamination is very likely if strict sampling protocol is not followed.
Michigan DEQ has developed a sampling methodology, which mandates: clothing must be laundered more than 6 times without fabric softeners. It also limits or precludes the use of certain shampoos, cosmetics, lotions, moisturizers, sunscreens, dental floss, waterproof clothing, prepackaged foods, Post-It-Notes, and waterproof field books. As stated, sample contamination is a real issue.
Many commercial labs are now offering PFAS testing. EPA recommends testing at least the following 21 compounds: PFTeA, PFTriA, PFDoA, PFUnA, PFDA, PFNA, PFOA, PFHpA, PFHxA, PFBA, PFDS, PFNS, PFOS, PFHpS, PFHxS, PFBS, PFOSA, N-EtFOSAA, and N-MeFOSAA. The cost to test for these analytes ranges from $250 – $500.00 depending on the lab. Remember, there are over 3,000 PFAS analytes identified and accepted testing criteria currently only exists for less than 50 of them. This issue will be around for many years to come.
What is being done on a national level?
On October 10, 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) announced a negative regulatory determination for perchlorate in accordance with the SDWA, “The Agency determined that a national primary drinking water regulation (NPDWR) for perchlorate would not present a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public water systems.”
USEPA revised this determination on February 2011 with an affirmative conclusion. “EPA has determined that perchlorate meets SDWA’s criteria for regulating a contaminant — that is, perchlorate may have an adverse effect on the health of persons; perchlorate is known to occur or there is a substantial likelihood that perchlorate will occur in public water systems with a frequency and at levels of public health concern; and in the sole judgment of the Administrator, regulation of perchlorate in drinking water systems presents a meaningful opportunity for health risk reduction for persons served by public water systems. Therefore, EPA will initiate the process of proposing a national primary drinking water regulation (NPDWR) for perchlorate.”
Eight years later, USEPA announced a PFAS Action Plan to respond to the public interest and utilized information received. EPA’s Action Plan identifies both short-term solutions for addressing these chemicals and long-term strategies that will help provide the tools and technologies needed by public water systems in order to provide clean and safe drinking water to their residents and to address PFAS at the source—including before it gets into the drinking water.
The USEPA Action Plan includes:
Drinking water: EPA is moving forward with the maximum contaminant level (MCL) process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act for PFOA and PFOS—two of the most well-known and prevalent PFAS chemicals. By the end of this year, EPA will propose a regulatory determination, which is the next step in the Safe Drinking Water Act process for establishing an MCL.
Clean up: EPA has already begun the regulatory development process for listing PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances and will issue interim groundwater cleanup recommendations for sites contaminated with PFOA and PFOS. This important work will provide additional tools to help states and communities address existing contamination and enhance the ability to hold responsible parties accountable.
Enforcement: EPA will use available enforcement tools to address PFAS exposure in the environment and assist states in enforcement activities.
Monitoring: EPA will propose to include PFAS in nationwide drinking water monitoring under the next Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Program. The agency will also consider PFAS chemicals for listing in the Toxics Release Inventory to help the agency identify where these chemicals are being released.
Research: EPA will develop new analytical methods so that more PFAS chemicals can be detected in drinking water, in soil, and in groundwater. These efforts will improve our ability to monitor and assess potential risks. EPA’s research efforts also include developing new technologies and treatment options to remove PFAS from drinking water at contaminated sites.
Risk Communications: EPA will work across the agency—and the federal government—to develop a PFAS risk communication toolbox that includes materials that states, tribes, and local partners can use to effectively communicate with the public.