Concerns about PFAS: how they affect the environment and public health
By Lori Adler, reporter
Last month, Rhinelander city officials sent letters to residents explaining the recent finding of PFAS (perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in one of the city’s wells. While there are currently no state or federal regulations regarding PFAS levels in drinking water, and no required testing parameters, the levels in well #7 caused enough concern that the city shut down the well indefinitely. Though city water has been deemed safe to drink, the issue has led to many residents wondering what are PFAS and what are the health and environmental concerns.
PFAS are a group of about 4,000 synthetically manufactured compounds that have been around since the mid-twentieth century. These substances are man-made and not naturally occurring in the environment. They have been used widely in manufacturing and can be found in numerous products. PFAS have properties that make them slippery, and therefore are an integral part of stain-resistant carpeting and upholstery coatings, non-stick pan coatings and oil- and water-resistant papers used in fast food packaging. However, they are also used in adhesives, anti-fog coatings, cleaning products and personal care and cosmetic products. They aid in the manufacturing of semiconductors and electronics as well as being used in chroming and plating processes, and they are a component of firefighting foams.
Most companies in the United States have voluntarily stopped using PFAS in their products, but they are still widely used overseas and are likely to be found in many imported products. They are considered long-chain compounds, which means there are many components that are hard to break apart or break down. This durable nature, along with the many variations of the compounds, makes it very difficult to pinpoint the source of any PFAS contamination. PFAS can easily travel by air, soil and runoff to make their way into groundwater. In addition, little is known about ways to remove PFAS from the environment.
The persistence of PFAS is not just in the environment but also in the human body. PFAS accumulate in the body over time, and scientists think almost every person in the U.S. and other developed countries worldwide mostly likely have PFAS in their bloodstreams. In addition, the human body has difficulty ridding itself of the chemicals with some PFAS compounds staying in the body for eight years or more.
PFAS are said to affect reproduction and development, immune and vaccination response and hormone function and have been linked to a variety of health risks such as liver damage, increased blood cholesterol levels and cancer. Like many health issues, however, more data is needed before there is conclusive evidence. PFAS are thought to only enter the body by ingestion, not by inhalation or skin absorption, and since they are easily dispersed into the ground water, it is the levels in drinking water that are causing the most concern among scientists.
Testing drinking water for PFAS is difficult for a number of reasons. First of all, no national standards have been set, and only a few states have legislation on PFAS levels. Many states, however, have recommendations from public health and natural resources organizations, but the recommended levels vary from state to state. In addition, there are so many compounds that standardized testing is not available either. Each lab has come up with its own testing procedure, depending upon the particular compound. Sampling for these substances is difficult as well since most recommendation levels are measured in parts per trillion which is a very small amount. Such minute quantities can make cross contamination of samples a very realistic problem. Some recommendations suggest that those conducting the sampling process should refrain from eating fast food, wearing clothing that has been dry cleaned and using personal care products for a period of time prior to sampling.
PFAS contamination is an emerging science, and as such, recommendations are constantly changing. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) are working to establish criteria for mandated levels of PFAS in drinking water, and potentially in treated waste water as well. These recommendations are expected to be presented to legislators in 2020.
While acceptable PFAS levels are still being determined and potential health risks are still being evaluated, it is clear that there is widespread concern about these chemicals. At this point, however, Wisconsin cities are not required to perform any testing. Though difficult to remove from the environment, many PFAS compounds can be removed from drinking water through filtration. This includes some of the filtration systems designed for in-home use. Concerned consumers should research manufacturer’s information or consult a water specialist for options.
The information for this article was gleaned from a recent presentation by John C. Osborne, P.G., to the Wisconsin Section of the American Institute of Professional Geologists conference, communications from the City of Rhinelander and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and research of the medical literature.