What are PFAS?
PFAS refer to a large class of toxic substances that have been used in manufacturing, industry and consumer products since the 1950’s. PFAS stands for Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, which create impervious coatings that persist in the environment and bioaccumulate. Detrimental health effects include elevated cholesterol and other serious metabolic problems. Animals do not need non-stick coatings in their blood. These “forever chemicals” do not occur in nature and are now known to have accumulated in people, wildlife, and fish all over the world. At this point they have been detected in the breastmilk of women in the US and Canada and the CDC estimates that over 95% of US residents are carrying some PFAS in their bodies.
Health Effects of PFAS
The EPA reports that “after twenty years of biomonitoring studies of these chemicals in both serum and urine, we have an extremely limited understanding of PFAS concentrations in breast milk of women in the US.” Animal studies show the direct association of toxic effects from PFAS.
The monitoring of these chemicals in food, drinking and wastewater contamination from PFAS is not standardized in the US. Some municipalities do monitor for these substances, and because of their cumulative nature, no safe drinking water levels have been established. Strong carbon and fluorine bonds make these chemicals extremely resistant to breakdown by exposure to water or oil solvents, but the same properties make them problematic in the environment. They work well to smother fires, and are used in extinguisher foam, and can leach into surrounding water tables. As more municipalities begin to monitor for PFAS contamination, more is found.
Health effects associated with PFAS include: lowered immune response to disease, elevated cholesterol levels, thyroid hormone disruption, reproductive problems, organ damage to liver and kidneys, developmental delays, tumors in animals, testicular cancer, and low newborn birth weights.
A growing number of states have set limits on PFAS pollution in water as researchers have discovered hundreds of sites where PFAS from a variety of sources have polluted groundwater. In spite of the persistent nature of these “forever chemicals”, there are no consistent regulation from the US EPA regarding this class of highly toxic chemicals.
PFAS in the Home
The PFAS group of chemicals are toxic in extremely small amounts. Small children and pets are especially vulnerable. The Washington State Department of Ecology chemical action plan identified carpets, water and stain resistance treatments, and leather and textile furnishings as significant sources and uses of PFAS. In their report they proposed that the state advocate for safer alternatives wherever feasible and available. These determinations should be made by June 2022 and would be accompanied by proposed regulatory actions such as increasing consumer awareness and manufacturer labeling to reduce exposure.
Ecology also recommends, “Reduce legacy PFAS-containing carpet and carpet care products remaining in homes, especially in low-income households, where items may be retained past the typical product lifespan… replace PFAS-containing carpet in community centers, libraries, daycares, and other environments where children may be disproportionately exposed.”
Consumer products that may contain PFAS.
Water resistant clothing and gear. Nonstick cookware and kitchen supplies (e.g. baking paper). Personal care products (including cosmetics and dental floss). Cleaning agents. Automotive products. Floor waxes and sealants. Ski waxes. Car waxes. PFAS are used in fire retardant foam spray extinguishers, car washes, and non-stick coatings on food cartons and teflon pans, even some pizza boxes. They are all around us.
Physicians for Social Responsibility PFAS Alert
In June 2021, the Physicians for Social Responsibility reported that PFAS showed up on a list of chemicals which the fossil fuel industry had carefully “redacted” from public record for their “proprietary” nature, which they were able to learn through a “freedom of Information Act” request. These chemicals along with other aggregate ceramic compounds are aggressively pumped into the earth to extract fossil fuel laden sludge that is then transported and refined. Often this corrosive toxic mixture is going through leaking pipelines. PFAS have been identified in the water tables of heavily fracked areas in the US such as Pennsylvania and Texas and are presently putting humans, animals, and ecosystems at risk. The EPA approved their use for this purpose in 2012, despite previously known health concerns. The EPA chose to protect Industry and did not disclose the PFAS use for this purpose. Previous to the PSR revelation, the use of PFAS in oil and gas operations had not been publicized.
Politics vs EPA Scientists.
Under the administration of Scott Pruitt, a known critic of climate science, the EPA failed to define safety guidelines for safe drinking water levels of PFAS by the targeted date of 2019. When the scientific assessment did appear, the Trump administration had it edited; sources told Politico that “these alterations were so alarming that several of the career EPA scientists who spent years working on the study have asked that their names be removed from the document.”
Conflicting information from the EPA, FDA, and CDC undermines their collective scientific credibility. With vague recommendations but no industry accountability in their action plan, this is concerning.
PFAS Action Act of 2021, brought by Michigan’s Debbie Dingell, passed in the 117th Congress this July and goes to the Senate next. The bill directs the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate the PFAS perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) as a hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, thereby requiring remediation of releases of those PFAS into the environment. Within five years, the EPA must determine whether the remaining PFAS should be designated as hazardous substances.
The Cumulative effect of Toxic Substances on the Nation’s Health.
The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry [ATSDR] states: “CDC/ATSDR recognizes that exposure to high levels of PFAS may impact the immune system. There is evidence from human and animal studies that PFAS exposure may reduce antibody responses to vaccines.”
Competing interests of Extractive Capitalism and Life on Earth are also evidenced in the continued use of glyphosate in the US after it was listed as a human carcinogen in 2015. Experts from 11 countries met at the International Agency for Research on Cancer [IARC] to assess the carcinogenicity of the organophosphate pesticides tetrachlorvinphos, parathion, malathion, diazinon, and glyphosate. These substances kill the soil biome which is also a vastly under appreciated carbon and greenhouse gas sink and it also has a cumulative effect on mineral absorption of roots that depletes our health further with less nutritious foods.
An Environmental Research article from April 2021 notes that “the burning of fossil fuels — especially coal, petrol, and diesel — is a major source of airborne fine particulate matter, and a key contributor to the global burden of mortality and disease. Fossil fuel combustion can be more readily controlled than other sources and precursors such as dust or wildfire smoke, so this is a clear message to policymakers and stakeholders to further incentivize a shift to clean sources of energy.”
Across the United States, occurrence data is collected to assess the highest priority drinking water contaminants most problematic for human health, as part of its responsibilities under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). This plan came into the fore after water contamination in Flint, Michigan became public. The Monitoring Program for Unregulated Contaminants occurs every 5 years. Action plans focus on decreasing public risk and cost benefit, but these plans have no teeth if the public is not educated and industry is not accountable.
The Department of Ecology scientists setting forth goals to protect water here in Washington State, and their action plan does move us closer to safety. However, one wonders why the contaminants remain Unregulated at the national level? Who does the EPA protect?