The Perils of PFAS Compounds

Aug. 24, 2016

Two studies have recently revealed that drinking water is a major source of human exposure to per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds (PFAS). These manmade fluorosurfactant substances have been used in industrial applications and consumer products for decades. They can be found in fire-fighting foams, oil and water repellents, furniture, waterproof clothes, and take out containers, as well as non-stick cookware and other metal coatings.

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In humans they can cause an array of maladies, including developmental delays in fetuses, changes to the body’s immune system, as well as prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.

Exposure to PFASs can be via consumer goods, food, or the environment. Water plays an important role, however, because PFASs are highly soluble and cannot be removed by standard wastewater treatment methods. Furthermore, they resist degradation in nature and tend to bioaccumulate in humans.

A recent study conducted by Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health examined data on levels of PFAS compounds in more than 36,000 public drinking water samples collected by the EPA between 2013 and 2015. In doing so, it found a strong statistical correlation between elevated levels of PFAS in areas near industrial sites, military and fire training sites, airports, and sewage treatment areas.

The data points to highly fluorinated surfactants in aqueous foams used for fire suppression at military bases and airports as a significant contributor to groundwater contamination.

“During fire-fighting practice drills, large volumes of these toxic chemicals wash into surface and ground waters and can end up in our drinking water,” Arlene Blum, study co-author and executive director of the Green Science Policy Institute said.

In response, the US Airforce announced this week that it has awarded a $6.2 million contract to replace the chemical-containing foam with a PFAS-free option to help reduce the risk of contamination of soil and groundwater. The Defense Department also said that it is disposing of older foams and working to develop a PSAS-free solution.

A second study, funded by the Cancer Prevention Institute and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, has linked high PFOS and PFOA levels in drinking water with high blood concentrations in women. In fact, blood serum concentrations of PFOS and PFOA were 29% and 38% higher in blood samples taken from women living in areas in which the compounds were detected in water supplies.

“Our study shows that toxic and highly persistent fluorochemicals are making their way from drinking water into people’s bodies,” Myrto Petreas, one of the report’s authors, said. “It underscores the importance of reducing the use of these chemicals whenever possible to protect our drinking water and our health.”

Long-term, what suggestions do you have for preventing the accumulation of chemicals like PFAS compounds in our groundwater?
About the Author

Laura Sanchez

Laura Sanchez is the editor of Distributed Energy and Water Efficiency magazines.

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