SOURCE: The Guardian
DATE: December 22, 2020
SNIP: [V]arious forms of PFAS are still used in a spectrum of industrial and consumer products – from nonstick frying pans and stain-resistant carpets to food wrappers and firefighting foam – and have become ubiquitous. The chemicals enter the environment anywhere they are made, spilled, discharged or used. Rain can flush them into surface sources of drinking water such as lakes, or PFAS may gradually migrate through the soil to reach the groundwater – another key source of public water systems and private wells.
For the same reasons the chemicals are prized by manufacturers – they resist heat, oil and water – PFAS also persist in the soil, the water and our bodies.
More than 200 million Americans may be drinking PFAS-contaminated water, suggests research by the nonprofit Environmental Working group (EWG), an advocacy group which is collaborating with Ensia on its Troubled Waters reporting project.
As studies continue to link exposures to a lengthening list of potential health consequences, scientists and advocates are calling for urgent action from both regulators and industry to curtail PFAS use and to take steps to ensure the chemicals already in the environment stay out of drinking water.
PFAS dates back to the 1930s and 1940s, when Dupont and Manhattan Project scientists each accidentally discovered the chemicals. The Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, now 3M, soon began manufacturing PFAS as a key ingredient in Scotchgard and other non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products.
Thousands of different PFAS chemicals emerged over the following decades, including the two most-studied versions: PFOS and PFOA. Oral-B began using PFAS in dental floss. Gore-Tex used it to make waterproof fabrics. Hush Puppies used it to waterproof leather for shoes. And DuPont, along with its spin-off company Chemours, used the chemicals to make its popular Teflon coatings.
Science suggests links between PFAS exposure and a range of health consequences, including possible increased risks of cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, liver damage, kidney disease, low birth-weight babies, immune suppression, ulcerative colitis and pregnancy-induced hypertension.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has even issued a warning that exposure to high levels of PFAS might raise the risk of infection with Covid-19 and noted evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS could lower vaccine efficacy.
Once PFAS gets into the environment, the chemicals are likely to stick around a long time because they are not easily broken down by sunlight or other natural processes.
Legacy and ongoing PFAS contamination is present across the US, especially at or near sites associated with fire training, industry, landfills and wastewater treatment. Near Parkersburg, West Virginia, PFAS seeped into drinking water supplies from a Dupont plant. In Decatur, Alabama, a 3M manufacturing facility is suspected of discharging PFAS, polluting residents’ drinking water. And in Hyannis, Massachusetts, firefighting foam from a firefighter training academy is the likely source of well-water contamination, according to the state. Use of PFAS-containing materials such as firefighting foam at hundreds of military sites around the country, including one on Whidbey Island in Washington state, has also contaminated many drinking water supplies.
“It works great for fires. It’s just that it’s toxic,” says Donald (Matt) Reeves, an associate professor of hydrogeology at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo who studies how PFAS moves around, and sticks around, in the environment.
His research in Michigan, he says, echoes a broader trend across the US: “The more you test, the more you find.”
In fact, a study by scientists from EWG, published in October 2020, used state testing data to estimate that more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water at concentrations of 1 part per trillion (ppt) or higher. That is the recommended safe limit, according to some scientists and health advocates, and is equivalent to one drop in 500,000 barrels of water.
“This really highlights the extent that these contaminants are in the drinking water across the country,” says EWG’s Andrews, who co-authored the paper. “And, in some ways, it’s not a huge surprise. It’s nearly impossible to escape contamination of drinking water.” He references research from the CDC that found the chemicals in the blood of 98% of Americans surveyed.