PFAS: An Environmental and Public Health Crisis that Needs Answers and Action

2nd in a Series on Public Trust and Risk Management


This is the second installment in a series of essays by FLOW board member Rick Kane on the vital issues of risk management and the responsibilities of public officials under the public trust doctrine. Rick is the former Director of Security, Environment, Transportation Safety and Emergency Services for Rhodia, North America. He is certified in environmental, hazardous materials, and security management, and is a graduate of the University of Michigan and University of Dallas.


PFAS – Public Trust and Risk Management

The discovery of groundwater, surface water, and drinking water contamination by fluorochemicals has triggered a global search for polluted areas, toxicology studies, contaminant sources, responsible party identification, and government actions to establish regulations. PFOS (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are the primary fluorochemicals of concern; however, they are only two members of a very large class known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) under investigation. PFAS are used as raw materials and in final products such as firefighting foams, industrial cleaning and treating products, and fabric and paper with water or grease repellents, and also to fabricate membranes for medical and water treatment applications.

PFOA production started in 1947, and during the 1960s to 1990s, internal DuPont studies showed their presence in workers’ blood and drinking water, but DuPont did not disclose the findings of their studies to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In 2000, the company 3M, after negotiations with the EPA, announced a phaseout of PFOS. In 2005, the EPA designated PFOA as a “likely carcinogen,” and DuPont paid a settlement for withholding information. In 2012, an independent science panel reported linkages to health problems, followed in 2015 by hundreds of scientists signing an international “call to action.” Faced with an emerging PFAS contamination crisis of its groundwater, surface, and drinking water, Michigan in 2017 set a high priority to identify areas of contamination and supply safe drinking water and became one of the leaders in addressing the issue, with other states now starting programs. In Europe, through the European Union REACH program (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals), specific controls and implementation dates have been established for immediate action and deadlines set for 2020. C&EN Per-Fluorinated Chemicals Taint Drinking Water,  PFAS Response – Taking Action Protecting Michigan,  Understanding REACH,  EU Restriction of PFOA, Related Substances

PFOS and PFOA, once widely used, are no longer manufactured in the United States. PFAS have an extremely low level of biodegradability, are environmentally persistent, and, as a result, are known as the “forever chemicals.” Scientists are still learning about the health effects, but current studies have shown that certain PFAS may:

  • Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant;
  • Increase the chance of high blood pressure in pregnant women;
  • Increase the chance of thyroid disease;
  • Increase cholesterol levels;
  • Change immune response; and
  • Increase the chance of cancer, especially kidney and testicular cancers.

States of emergency have been declared in several communities where high levels have been detected in drinking water. U.S. lawmakers are urging the EPA to regulate these chemicals as a class. Presently, there are more than 4,700 PFAS registered by the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society, and the health and environmental impacts are known for only a very few. C&EN U.S. Senators Seek Regulation PFASs

Michigan adopted 70 parts per trillion (ppt) as a legally enforceable cleanup level for PFOS or PFOA. However, a federal report, once suppressed by the U.S. military and EPA, proposes a safe daily level of consumption for the two PFAS at one-tenth the current EPA level. The Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR) translated these dose levels to drinking water maximums of 11 ppt for PFOA and 7 ppt for PFOS. C&EN Michigan Declares State of Emergency C&EN U.S. Report Proposes Lower Safe Limit

The PFAS crisis is an ongoing example of a failure to apply comprehensive risk assessment and management practices and to uphold the Public Trust Doctrine as outlined in the first installment of this risk management series. A crisis developed because commercialization did not wait for the science; human health, drinking water supplies, and environmental protection were compromised. Industry continues to promote the use of the “best available science” in restricting and regulating PFAS. However, the knowledge base on alternatives, toxicology, environmental transport and fate, mitigation, and remediation continues to lag the commercial introduction and use of PFAS. There is a lack of precaution and use of public trust principles to protect public waters.  

PFAS Risk

Risk was introduced in the previous installment as a function of probability and consequence. Probability can be further represented as a function of threat and vulnerability. 

Risk = Probability x Consequence

Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence

PFAS Threats

Lack of Regulations – PFAS are not yet classified as hazardous materials under air, water, waste, or safe drinking water regulations. PFAS are present and causing problems in all of these media due to a lack of appropriate chemical management and regulatory controls.

Inadequate Toxicology and Ecosystem Threat Information – New PFAS are being identified in the environment and “allowable limits” are under study and debate. “Allowable” drinking water concentrations are extremely low, parts per trillion compared to other hazardous chemicals such as PCBs and chlorinated solvents in parts, which are measured in parts per million and billion; PFAS limits are orders of magnitude lower. This is a crisis requiring a priority and new approaches to mitigate water contaminants at extremely low concentrations that move easily through the environment. 

Unidentified Contaminated Sites and Water Bodies – Hot zones are still being discovered. PFAS are found at military airbases, firefighting training facilities, and sites where the compounds were used to fight fires, were and are being manufactured and used to make products, and were disposed of or landfilled.

Lack of Control over Existing Stocks, Inventories – There are unknown quantities of PFAS at fire departments, cleaning and treating businesses, waste disposal operations, and product manufacturers. How are the PFAS being stored, used, disposed of, and replaced? One drum released to surface or groundwater can contaminate an enormous volume of drinking water.

Continued Manufacture and Use – New PFAS materials are being manufactured and used with a lack of information on health and environmental impacts and regulations. There are thousands of PFAS compounds, derivatives, and degradation products with health and safety information known only for a few.

Use of “Best Available Science” for Regulation – New regulation is needed for industry when “best available” is inadequate and a lack of “precaution” has expanded the number of crisis sites and new chemicals introduced to the environment.  For example, the commercialization of “GenX” fluoro-surfactant (hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid HFPO-DA parent acid) as a partial substitute for PFOS and PFOA was believed to be a safe alternative, but was later discovered also to be toxic.  Discharges from the Chemours (formerly DuPont) GenX manufacturing plant near Fayetteville, North Carolina, have contaminated the Cape Fear River and groundwater in the region. Air emissions from the plant have even contaminated rainwater, which, in turn, contaminated groundwater that is not hydraulically connected to the river or groundwater near the plant!  Chemours to Pay Fine GenXEPA Releases Draft Safe Daily GenX Dose,  The Fluoro Council

Vulnerability to PFAS

Children are the Most Vulnerable to the effects of PFAS – Exposure is not only from drinking water, but also from swimming in contaminated areas and eating contaminated food. 

PFAS Move Easily in Surface and Groundwater – Water analysis takes time and must be done by certified laboratories using expensive equipment (EPA Method 537 Rev 1.1 – Solid Phase Extraction and Liquid Chromatography/Tandem Mass Spectrometry (LC/MS/MS).  This inhibits quick identification and delineation of hot zones. It is estimated that there are thousands of potentially contaminated sites in Michigan alone.  Record Eagle PFAS Plume Confirmed Near School

Human Health Impacts Occur from Long-Term Exposure – Symptoms and warning signs are not immediately evident.

Effectiveness of In-Home Removal Systems – Certain in-home drinking water treatment systems can be used for PFAS, but they are not efficient compared to the removal of other contaminant chemicals. The operating life of activated granular charcoal filters, for example, is shorter because of the low concentration levels (parts per trillion) that must be achieved. In addition, effectiveness has only been tested for a limited number of PFAS. Proper disposal of used filters is an issue to prevent PFAS from reentering the environment.

PFAS Consequences

PFASs are continuing to be introduced into the ecosystem – And PFAS move rapidly through surface and groundwater. Extremely low concentrations have toxic impacts. Millions of people are at risk and others remain in the dark as testing and delineation goes on.   

Food Contamination and Consumption Restrictions – Restrictions, especially for eating fish, have been issued at some locations.  Health impacts from consumption are speculated, but largely unknown. PFAS bioaccumulate as they move up the food chain.

Water Recreational Use Limitations – Recreational restrictions are being imposed in some areas to avoid direct contact with PFAS foams during swimming and general water recreational activities. 

Recommendations – Close the Gaps and Take Stronger Action

Excellent listings of recommendations for establishing regulations and identifying and mitigating the current crisis in Michigan can be found on the websites of the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).  Michigan Environmental Council PFAS Recommendations,  PFAS Response – Taking Action Protecting Michigan 

Important and additional actions include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. Government officials must recommit to their primary duty to protect human health and safety, protect the environment, and meet their public trust duties. Accountability for the PFAS crisis is resulting in huge liabilities for both government and private sector entities.  Government officials cannot allow continued risk and consequences to the public as the battle ramps up regarding who is responsible and who pays.  
  2. Reclassifying the compounds to a higher regulatory risk level will enable stronger action to be taken to protect drinking water, discharges to the environment, remediation activities, and control of manufacturing, use, and storage. Lawmakers have proposed legislation, but actions are slow and PFAS continue to be discharged and spread through the environment.
  3. New regulations under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and/or state authority should use a precautionary approach to PFAS manufacturing, use, new chemical approvals and disposal. Use of “best available science” and “predicting toxicity” is not adequately addressing all of the risk elements. Health and the environment continue to be put in jeopardy. The use of best available science only works when the body of knowledge is adequate to determine the full risk to human health and the ecosystem.  The current state of knowledge is still far short in understanding risk.
  4. Establish a lower drinking water Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFAS. A Center for Disease Control (CDC) draft study indicates 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA, compared to the federal limit of 70 ppt.
  5. Ensure an adequate number of water testing laboratories are in place with appropriate sample turnaround times.
  6. Rick Kane, FLOW Board Member

    Proactively, identify all users and stocks of PFAS and issue interim guidelines on proper handling and disposal. Already, abandoned drums of PFAS have been found in remote locations. Past experience with other hazardous chemicals indicates that illegal disposal and further contamination will occur. Best practices and approved disposal operations must be initiated as soon as possible. 

  7. Standards and regulations must be set for PFAS users and disposal operations, possibly starting with “maximum achievable control technology,” until risks have been identified and quantified.

The State of Michigan needs to continue to improve on communications transparency with a timetable, milestones, best practices, and newly identified risks on a statewide mapping system.


One comment on “PFAS: An Environmental and Public Health Crisis that Needs Answers and Action

  1. Renee Powers on

    We Have A Non Productive Government Right Now !! I’m Very Disgusted And Have Lost Total Faith In The Government And That Is From The Top Branches Down To The Very Roots… We Need A Clean Sweep In That House & Start Clean . The Words They Speak Do Not Represent What They Actually Do & Don’t Do !! They Are Not Held Accountable And They still Get Their Pay For Traveling around Giving Speeches & Telling Us Prefabricated Plans . Who Really is Running This Country Is What Id Like To Know because Everyone In Our Legislature Is Putting Someone Else To Blame For this That & Everything Else but The One Who’s Paying Everyone Off Is Now The Leader In Our Country And So Who Needs A President With The Way Things Are now . The News Media Shows Nothing Good To Say About Our Government Officials And Its Very Disappointing .

    Reply

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2nd in a Series on Public Trust and Risk Management