Over the past decade, there has been growing concern over a group of environmental contaminants known PFASs. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are a class of fluorinated organic chemicals containing at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom. The C-F bond is one of the strongest known covalent bonds, and the multiple C-F bonds in PFASs make them extremely stable compounds.
PFOS and PFOA stand for Perfluorooctane Sulfonate and Perfluorooctanoic Acid, respectively. Both are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of the larger PFAS family of compounds. These substances are synthetic compounds (i.e., man-made) that are unique for being water and lipid (fat)-resistant. Because they deter water, grease and oil, PFOS and PFOA have proven useful for a variety of manufacturing processes and industrial applications. Staring in the 1950’s, these man-made chemicals have been used to manufacture a diverse collection of consumer goods, including teflon pans, oil and water repellents for fabric, apparel, and carpets, and paper coatings for fast-food wrappers and pizza boxes. They are also used in various industrial applications and in fire fighting foam. Now PFOS and PFOA have worked their way into the soil, air and water, invading even the most remote and pristine corners of the globe. Studies have already shown these chemicals in the blood of people around the world. They’ve contaminated our food and water supplies, and pose a significant risk for humans and wildlife.
One of the primary concerns about PFOS and PFOA is that they are very persistent chemicals meaning they are not easily broken-down or degraded by natural processes. This means that once PFOS and PFOA are released into the environment they don’t easily go away.
Another issue is that PFOS and PFOA are easily dispersed throughout the environment. Because these chemicals are water soluble in their anionic forms, they readily migrate from soil to groundwater where they can be transported very long distances. This is evidenced by these compounds being found in water and soil in areas as remote as the Arctic caps and the open ocean.
Humans and animals are widely affected by PFOS and PFOA. A startling 2007 study conducted with data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey in collaboration with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) detected the presence of PFOS and PFOA in more than 98% of the human blood samples tested. Both laboratory animal studies and human toxicology studies have found that PFOS and PFOA are readily absorbed via oral exposure and they accumulate in blood serum, kidneys and the liver.
In March 2014, the EPA released a statement summarizing concerns around PFOS and PFOA. It reads:
“PFOS and PFOA are extremely persistent in the environment and resistant to typical environmental degradation processes as a result they are widely distributed across the higher trophic levels and are found in soil, air and groundwater at sites across the United States. The toxicity, mobility and bioaccumulation of PFOS and PFOA pose potential adverse effects for the environment and human health.”
In the Spring of 2016, EPA released the following statement:
“Studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”
In May of 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory for PFOS and PFOA in public water systems, warning municipalities that the presence of levels over 70 parts per trillion in community water supplies is not safe. This can be equated to just one drop of the chemicals in 20 Olympic sized swimming pools.
PFOS and PFOA were recently added to the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule Program, a list of 30 chemicals that are known to, or anticipated to, occur in public water systems. While the EPA has established a (Human) Lifetime Health Advisory limit for these contaminants, they have yet to promulgate regulations that would require monitoring and/or treatment of our drinking water systems. A handful of states are taking action to establish their own cleanup standards, but without Federal regulation, it will continue to be a free-for-all that is putting the public at risk.