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Jun 4, 2018 4:23 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Overlooked And Ignored—A Tale Of Two Contaminants: PFOA and PFOS

Firefighters spraying fire retardant foam during a disaster response exercise at the Wainscott gravel pit in June 2000.     MICHAEL WRIGHT
Jun 4, 2018 4:46 PM

The Environmental Protection Agency classifies them as “contaminants of emerging concern.” But various authorities, including members of the federal agency, first identified PFOA and PFOS as potential health risks decades earlier.
 

In a January 2009 provisional health advisory issued following the testing of agricultural lands in Alabama—sewer sludge from a local wastewater treatment plant sited near manufacturing facilities was applied to farm fields—EPA officials found elevated levels of perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs, in both the soil and carted-in sludge. That prompted the testing of drinking water supplies in two nearby counties; elevated levels of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, and perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, were detected.


But the levels came in lower than 0.04 parts per billion—or 40 per trillion—a level low enough that the EPA never sounded the alarm about the potential dangers posed by either PFOA or PFOS. The agency’s reasoning as per the 2009 report: “Based on its current understanding, EPA believes these levels are not of concern, and residents may rely upon public water systems.”

That study was issued nine years after the primary manufacturer of items containing PFOS—the 3M Company of Minnesota, as per the EPA—agreed to voluntarily phase out its production. It also was one year before Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson sued the Scotchgard manufacturer for allegedly contaminating the state’s drinking water supplies.

In February 2018, 3M reportedly reached an $850 million settlement in the lawsuit that blamed the pollution on chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, used to make the stain-resistant product.

Earlier studies had strongly hinted at the potential health risks posed by these chemicals, now classified under a larger group of chemicals called polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, previously used in everything from industrial firefighting foam to grease-resistant fast-food containers.

“There is some evidence from the recent lawsuits in Minnesota and others that the industry knew in the 1970s about many of the health impacts we are just starting to discuss now,” said Elsie M. Sunderland, an associate professor at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It was not until the 1990s to 2000s that academic research really picked up in this area.”

Ms. Sunderland is the senior author of a 2016 Harvard study that determined that PFAS concentrations exceeding federally recommended safety levels can now be found in the drinking water supplies of an estimated 6 million Americans.

As per the EPA, that safety level now stands at 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, though that figure could be reduced substantially as more becomes known about the potential dangers posed by the chemicals, which already have been linked to cancer in animals and serious health issues in humans.
 

 

 

Growing Risks
 

In its Technical Fact Sheet released in November 2017, the EPA states that there “is suggestive evidence that PFOS and PFOA may cause cancer,” and the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists has classified PFOA as a Group A3 carcinogen, meaning that it has been found to cause cancer in animals, though its potential impact on human beings remains “unknown.”

The number of Americans exposed is expected to climb as more attention is given to the chemicals, which have been detected in public water supplies and private wells in Westhampton, East Quogue, Hampton Bays and Wainscott over the past few years. To date, those local discoveries have been attributed to the unregulated dispersion and disposal of industrial firefighting foam at military bases, civilian airports and training sites.

Various studies, including the Harvard report—which examines PFAS levels in more than 36,000 water samples collected by the EPA between 2013 and 2015—also note that the highest concentrations of the chemicals are typically found in the watersheds near industrial sites, and adjacent to military bases and wastewater treatment plants. Sixty-six of the public water supplies examined by Harvard researchers had at least one water sample that exceeded the EPA safely limit of 70 ppt for both PFOS and PFOA, according to the study.

“It is likely that many more than that number are affected, since we did not have any monitoring data for approximately 100 million people served by small public water supplies [serving less than 10,000 people] and private wells,” Ms. Sunderland wrote in an email when asked if the 6 million figure from 2016 was still accurate.

So, why did it take so long for the EPA to finally designate PFOA and PFOS as “chemicals of emerging concern,” even though they’ve been around for nearly 70 years?

In addition to being versatile chemicals—they were used for decades in various food packaging, including pizza boxes, Chinese food takeout containers, microwave popcorn bags and other containers that repel grease—they are indispensable to many industries and manufacturers. They are used in special coatings that prevent items from sticking to frying pans, for example, and also used in the lining of water-repellent jackets and stain-resistant carpets.

“These are very valuable chemicals in the chemical manufacturing industry, and they are extremely widely used,” Ms. Sunderland said.

Because of their widespread use for nearly 70 years, authorities most likely won’t know for years, following the completion of additional studies, exactly how big of a contamination issue the country is facing and, more important, what can happen when one is exposed to such chemicals for years, or even decades.

Some of those eagerly awaiting the results of a Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, draft study—the release of which has been delayed by the Trump administration—are bracing for the worst.
 

 

Bracing For Backlash
 

Yogin Kothari, the Washington, D.C., representative for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit science advocacy organization, said he thinks the federal government has delayed the study’s release for two reasons: Officials are worried about the potential health impacts from the inadvertent long-term ingestion of PFOA and PFOS, and also terrified of the potential costs of cleaning up the widespread contamination.

Based on internal emails circulated between White House and EPA officials, and obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists through the Freedom of Information Act, the unreleased draft report is expected to conclude that both PFOA and PFOS, as well as two other related chemicals, pose a danger to human health at significantly lower levels than previously identified.

Being completed by the HHS’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, the study is expected to suggest that the minimal risk levels for both PFOA and PFOS be reduced to 12 ppt—roughly one-sixth the current EPA-suggested limit of 70 ppt.

The draft report was originally expected to be finished this past winter; presently, there is no set timetable for its release.

“While we don’t know the full contents of the ATSDR draft study, what we see in the emails and what has been reported would have significant implications and affect the lives of millions of Americans across the country who might not even know they are being exposed to harmful chemicals,” Mr. Kothari said. “If the ATSDR assessment showed that the exposure level should be lower, it would put pressure on EPA, [Department of Defense] and others to act.

“The inability to regulate these contaminants has been a long-term problem for the federal government, and that’s why you have seen many states take matters into their own hands to protect their constituents,” he continued.

Some of those actions include voluntarily hooking up those on private wells to public water supplies, as has happened in Southampton and East Hampton towns, and the installation of special and expensive filters on public water supply wells that remove the chemicals, as the Suffolk County Water Authority has done near Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.

Mr. Kothari explained that both chemicals have already been linked to a number of health issues, including cancer, thyroid disease and weakened immune systems, and that the most vulnerable individuals are children. He also notes that more studies need to be completed to address what he describes as an “emerging health crisis,” which, in his opinion, is the “result of legacy pollution.”

According to a fact sheet compiled by the ATSDR and last updated in June 2017, prior studies focusing on the impact of PFAS on humans and animals “are inconsistent and inconclusive.” It also states that additional research is needed.

Still, that does not mean there isn’t already evidence suggesting that there is a direct relationship between the inadvertent ingestion of large amounts of the chemicals and various health issues, such kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid issues, ulcerative colitis, as well as preeclampsia during pregnancy. A National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey conducted by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that PFAS was detected in the bloodstreams, breast milk or umbilical cord blood of 98 percent of the study’s participants.

As part of the C8 Health Project, a large epidemiological study conducted after authorities detected PFOAs in the water supplies near Parkersburg, West Virginia, in 2002, a panel determined that there were probable links between those with elevated levels of PFOA—which is also called C8—in their blood and those specific health issues.

However, the more than 60,000 people surveyed as part of that study were at least 18 years of age, and some had been unknowingly drinking tainted water over several decades; authorities said the contamination most likely began in the 1950s.

Another study, published in 2012 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, determined that newborns whose mothers were exposed to certain PFASs had lower-than-average birth weights.

The same ATSDR fact sheet also notes that animals exposed to high levels of the toxins were found to have enlarged livers, experienced changes in hormone levels, and had negative developmental and reproductive effects, including lower birth weights and delays in postnatal growth and development. They also suffered from increased neonatal mortality rates, according to the document. Other animal studies connect PFAS with various cancers, including kidney, rectal and prostate, as well as liver and thyroid issues.

Studies have not yet directly linked those health issues to humans, but Ms. Sunderland noted that children and women of childbearing age are typically the most prone to the introduction of contaminants, and that the inadvertent ingestion of PFOA and PFOS should be avoided.

“Children are most at risk for immunotoxicity and other health effects because a lot of immune programming occurs early in life (before the age of 4), and their bodies are small, which limits their ability to ‘dilute’ chemicals they ingest,” she said. “The field of epidemiology generally suggests the disease trajectory many individuals experience later in life can be related to early-life exposures to environmental toxicants.”

While she said it is too early to know for certain, Ms. Sunderland said moderate exposure to such chemicals can negatively affect metabolic function, making those individuals more prone to diabetes and obesity, and that exposure at “very high levels” opens up individuals to “another set of health concerns.”

Another ASTDR webpage focusing on the potential health effects due to exposure to various PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS, states that some studies focusing specifically on humans have determined that exposure to the chemicals can affect growth, negatively influence learning behaviors in infants and older children, reduce a woman’s chances of getting pregnant, elevate cholesterol levels, disrupt the immune system, and increase the risk of cancer.

It then concludes: “For the most part, laboratory animals exposed to high doses of one or more of these PFAS have shown changes in liver, thyroid, and pancreatic function, as well as some changes in hormone levels. Because animals and humans process these chemicals differently, more research will help scientists fully understand how PFAS affect human health.”

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