Water quality study affirms state's aim to reduce perfluorinated compounds

Aug. 10, 2010
OLMPIA, WA, Aug. 10, 2010 -- A statewide study by the Washington Department of Ecology shows the widespread occurrence of low levels of man-made perfluorinated compounds in Washington lakes and streams, in fish tissue, and in municipal wastewater treatment plant discharges...

OLMPIA, WA, Aug. 10, 2010 -- A statewide study by the Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) shows the widespread occurrence of low levels of man-made perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) in Washington lakes and streams, in fish tissue, and in municipal wastewater treatment plant discharges.

Several osprey eggs from the lower Columbia River had elevated levels of PFCs.

The primary goal of Ecology's just-out study, "Perfluorinated Compounds in Washington Rivers and Lakes" was to determine the extent and magnitude of PFC contamination across different aspects of the state's environment. The study is the first of its kind in the western United States.

Ecology is planning to develop a chemical action plan describing efforts that can be undertaken to reduce Washington's risk from PFCs. It will use the results of this study to aid in the design of the plan.

"Washington state is a leader in helping the nation change the way we look at toxic substances that wind up in products that people use on a daily basis," said Gov. Chris Gregoire. "Our clean environment and safe communities make Washington a great place to live and work, and reducing exposure to toxic chemicals is essential to keeping it that way."

PFCs are used as raw materials in the production of fluoropolymers, which have numerous industrial and consumer applications. PFCs also are used to produce common products such as non-stick cookware, waterproof and breathable clothing, and stain- and water-repellant coatings.

The unique chemical properties that make PFCs useful for thousands of industrial and manufacturing applications allow them to last a long time in the environment and get into the food chain.

Scientists' concerns over PFC use have increased due to the detection of PFCs in precipitation, surface waters, underground water supplies, polar ice caps, wildlife and people.

While risks to human health remain unclear, concerns include developmental, neurological, liver, and immune system effects. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has labeled one type of PFC, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as "likely to be carcinogenic to humans."

Ecology's Carol Kraege, who is leading the agency's Reducing Toxic Threats Initiative, said: "This study confirms that we are on the right track to begin working on a chemical action plan to reduce and control PFCs."

Although PFCs are not manufactured in Washington, they enter the state's environment through consumer and industrial products that contain trace amounts of the chemicals. Compounds that can degrade to PFCs may also be transported through the atmosphere and be transformed into PFCs.

"Our study is important because we have only scattered information about environmental levels in North America and almost none in the Western United States," said study co-author Chad Furl, a scientist in Ecology's Environmental Assessment Program.

Ecology's look at PFCs is aligned with agency efforts to prevent the sources of toxics that persist in the environment, even though PFCs enter Washington from outside sources.

Ecology, along with the state Department of Health, has prepared chemical action plans for other toxic substances including mercury, PBDEs (flame retardants), and lead.

Washington and 12 other states support reform of an outdated federal law meant to regulate chemicals that reach the marketplace. The Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was enacted in 1976 to protect the environment and consumers' health against risks posed by chemicals in commerce. But over the years, the law has not kept pace with the marketplace, new products or the need for information about their health effects. The EPA, which is charged with enforcing TSCA, has stated that the law is no longer an adequate tool for providing protection against chemical risks.

"We can't just keep doing business as usual. To make a difference, we need to control the sources of toxic chemicals that persist in our world -- there is no way we can clean up these kinds of substances once they are out there," Kraege said.

In 2006, the EPA launched the 2010/2015 PFOA Stewardship Program. In the program, companies committed to reducing PFOA by 95 percent from facility emissions and product content by 2010. The companies also committed to work toward eliminating all PFOA emissions and product content by 2015.

Scope of "Perfluorinated Compounds in Washington Rivers and Lakes"
Ecology's 2008 study looked at a variety of PFCs in a range of environmental media including surface waters, wastewater treatment plant effluent, fish tissues (fillets and livers), and osprey eggs. Ecology scientists collected surface water samples in 14 locations including urban, rural, and pristine drainages across the state. Ecology also sampled wastewater discharges from four facilities. It analyzed PFCs in fish tissues and osprey eggs to determine if they are accumulating in fish and fish-eating birds. Scientists collected fish from seven of the surface water sites. They also collected and analyzed 11 osprey eggs from nests along the Lower Columbia River. Partners in the study included the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

What the study found
Concentrations of PFCs generally fell within or below the range of values recorded at other United States locations, with the exception of PFCs found in osprey eggs. Osprey eggs from the lower Columbia River had the second highest recorded value of PFC concentrations reported in the U.S. An osprey's primary diet is fish.

Additional findings of the state study:

• At least one PFC was present in each of the waters tested, including pristine areas.
• The highest levels in surface waters were present in highly urbanized waters and those receiving large amounts of municipal treatment plant effluent.
• Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) was the primary PFC detected in fish tissues and osprey eggs.
• Forty percent of fillet samples and 67 percent of liver samples from fish contained quantifiable concentrations of PFOS. PFCs were not detected in fish collected from "background" sites -- pristine sites untouched by human activities.
• PFOS was detected in osprey eggs at concentrations higher than surface waters and fish tissues, displaying the bioaccumulative properties of this contaminant. The highest concentrations were found in the Columbia River, below the confluence with the Willamette River.

The data collected indicates that atmospheric deposition and municipal treatment plant discharges appear to be important environmental sources of these compounds in Washington.

Read "Perfluorinated Compounds in Washington Rivers and Lakes" online >
Washington Department of Ecology home page >


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