A Lack of Information Regarding the Emerging Contaminate, PFC's and PFAS's
More than 16 million Americans get their drinking water from public systems contaminated with industrial chemicals known
as PFASs or PFCs, and at levels high enough to concern the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because of the risks to public health.
problem is spread across 30 states (and three territories), three-fourths of the contaminated systems are in just 13 — including Minnesota. For more than 6 million people, the concentrations are at
or above the EPA's recommended safety maximum.
Those are the sobering conclusions of new research from the Harvard School of Public Health that attracted significant if scattered national coverage last week (8/17/16), as well as brief treatment
locally. (Bring Me The Newsgathered a useful selection of excerpts and the Star Tribune published most of a short Washington Post story.)
PFASs have been linked to a range of medical problems from birth defects and endocrine disruption to
immune-system suppression, from obesity and elevated blood cholesterol to cancer. Recent studies published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters (ESTL) and Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP)examine the presence and effects of drinking
water contamination by poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals, part of a broader category of substances known as perfluorochemicals (PFC), have been linked to negative effects
including high cholesterol, hormone suppression, cancer, and decreased child immune system health.
In the ESTL study published on August 9, 2016, Xindi Hu, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, states that the myriad uses of PFCs are major contributors to their widespread danger. Used
in both food packaging as well as a large assortment of products designed to be resistant to heat, oil, grease, and water, these chemicals have been found in higher-than-recommended concentrations in
33 of the 50 states in the country. And because it can take years for the human body to dispose of PFCs once ingested, people are prone to PFC accumulation and increased chances of negative health
effects. Furthermore, the EHP study finds that young children exposed to these contaminants are more likely to suffer from decreased levels of immunity against diphtheria, tetanus, measles, and
influenza, even with prior vaccination.
They have become widely dispersed over six decades of proliferating use, and are very long-lived in both the environment and the human body. There is no good way as yet for getting them back out of
drinking water. (A study done in May of 2008 revealed RO/ w additional carbon filtration does indeed put PFC's at non-detectable levels; please see
In May 2015, an international group of 200 scientists called for major new research into the health effects, as well as precautionary restrictions on their use until the risks were better understood.
3M a major manufacturer of PFC's products have removed their use in their products.But when it comes to drinking water contamination — the most significant source of human ingestion — there still are
no legal limits on the chemicals (although some believe the EPA may be moving in that direction). There is only a level at which the EPA requires their presence to be reported, and a higher
limit that it recommends as a safety maximum but does not enforce.
PFAS compounds share the special and useful property of repelling both water and oil, and are now found in more products than we have space today to list, from fire suppressants and flame retardants
to cardboard coatings, from cleaning products and paints to nonstick cookware linings such as Teflon.
They are typically known by their abbreviations, which form a thick alphabet soup; as a group they are often referred to as PFASs (for polyfluoroalkyl or perfluoroalkyl substances), and sometimes
more simply as PFCs (for perfluorinated chemicals).
For the new study, published Aug. 9 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, the Harvard team looked at six specific members: Perﬂuorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS),
perﬂuorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), perﬂuoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA), perﬂuorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perﬂuorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), and perﬂuorononanoic acid (PFNA).
The EPA has only been tracking their new presence in water supplies since 2013, when it lowered the recommended maximum safe level to 70 parts per trillion (70 nanograms per liter), and Harvard
scientists examined the numbers for the years 2013 to 2015. A highly readable summary in the Harvard Gazette lays out the key findings concisely:
The study found that PFASs were detectable at the minimum reporting levels required by the EPA in 194 out of 4,864 water supplies in 33 states across the United States. Drinking water from 13 states
accounted for 75 percent of the detections: California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Arizona, Massachusetts, and Illinois, in order
of frequency of detection.
Sixty-six of the public water supplies examined, serving six million people, had at least one water sample that measured at or above the EPA safety limit of 70 parts per trillion (ng/L) for two types
of PFASs, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Concentrations in some locations ranged as high as 349 ng/L for PFOA and 1,800 ng/L for PFOS.
“These compounds are potent immunotoxicants in children and recent work suggests drinking-water safety levels should be much lower than the provisional guidelines established by EPA,” said Elsie
Sunderland, senior author of the study. ...
Linking contaminants to sources
In addition to identifying water systems with high contamination levels, the Harvard team attempted to correlate them with probable sources of PFASs, which fall into three main categories: industrial
plants that make them or apply them to products, military bases or civilian airports where the firefighting products are used in training, and wastewater treatment plants which, somewhat perversely,
tend to concentrate them because the compounds resist removal by currently available Municipal methods.
This part of the study was complicated because the intake points for many large public water systems are secret, for national security reasons, which meant researchers had to rely on geographic
matching at the level of ZIP codes. This sometimes led to imprecise attribution of contamination, they said — for example, in “systems that draw water upstream from point sources, such as
Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota.”
There also was no way to factor in additional sources beyond the main three types, such as landfills where PFASs used in, say, food packaging are leaching into groundwater, or farmland where sludge
produced in wastewater treatment is spread as fertilizer.
In general, systems that drew their supplies from groundwater seemed twice as likely to have PFAS contamination than those that drew from lakes and rivers. The association with different
contamination sources was complex, but researcher Xindi Hu summarized it neatly in an interview with Think Progress:
Researchers also found that being near a manufacturing site makes a public water system 81 percent more likely to have elevated levels of PFAS pollution. “That’s a big increase,” said Hu. Military
sites carry a 35 percent increase. She said, while wastewater treatment plants bring a much lower risk of some 2 percent. Proximity to an airport brought no statistically significant risk.
As for do-it-yourself treatment, the Harvard Gazette quotes Hu as explaining that activated carbon filters and reverse osmosis are not yet up to the task of removing PFASs, although some show promise
(though there is supporting data that the two together will reduce PFC's to non-detectable levels; Please see Pgs.38 & 39
http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/wells/waterquality/poudevicefinal.pdf). No technology for large-scale treatment is on the near horizon.
Hu also pointed out another significant limitation of the study: Because EPA’s tracking program doesn’t concern itself with contamination of private wells, which provide water for 44.5 million
Americans, or of the smaller public systems that serve another 52 million, nearly 100 million of us are exposed to PFASs at levels that no one has begun to quantify.
Please keep in mind this is only one Emerging Contaminate of many such as Lead, we have yet to determine the rest at this point. Many communities across the nation deal with their own woes, such as
perchlorates, VOC's, Nitrates, MTBE's, and others!
Here in Colorado with our "Clear Mountain" streams filled with "pure mountain snow melt", we too have our problems. Such as Nitrates (Burlington), Lead (Estes Park), Radionuclides (pockets;
Evergreen, Black Hawk, Lyons), PFC's (Fountain, Widefield, Security), Acidic water (pockets; Parker, Castle Rock, Monument, Larkspur), many in the Mountains may be prone to Bacteria contamination
during thaw, and even Boulder had Ethyl benzene and Xylene in their water in 2014!
Keep in mind much of the Front range receives their water from surface sources as many communities across the nation do. As such they are subject to the run off of Ditch and Road, which may carry
herb and pesticides, or any other contaminate. We can't always rely on the government to protect us. There are systems we as consumers can purchase to give us a measure of protection from the
unknown, from Point of Entry to Point of Use!
Please don't assume because your water tastes good that it is safe. If you are on a well, the water should be tested periodically. If on municipal water, check the water report posted every 3yrs..
Chlorine may be a necessary evil, but it is not needed after it has entered your home. It can then be removed as well as many other contaminates!
Compiled by Terry Hughes
With special thanks to: MinnPost 2016, www.Waterthinktank.com, 2008, and an article by Kenton