“Forever chemicals” might be the new tobacco of the chemical industry, attracting public outcry, lawsuits claiming its manufacturers buried evidence of its harms and health studies tying it to multiple cancers.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, are a group of about 5,000 industrial chemicals that do not break down in nature. PFAS exposure is linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, high cholesterol, immune deficiency, thyroid disease, asthma and infant and childhood developmental harm, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The substances are in paint, clothing, nonstick cookware and possibly our blood. In 2016, a Harvard University study estimated that 6 million Americans were drinking water containing unsafe levels of PFAS. That was based on limited data; newer data suggest the number is probably closer to 110 million Americans, according to Courtney Carignan, a toxicology expert and assistant professor at Michigan State University, who co-authored the study.
“We continue to be exposed to it and it continues to be released into the environment,” Carignan said.
To address this growing concern, the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet voluntarily initiated a statewide study of the prevalence of PFAS in public drinking water supplies. From June through October, state officials collected 648 carefully filled samples and sent them to the cabinet’s newly PFAS-certified lab, the only one in the state.
The state sampled for eight types of PFAS – including perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and those considered to be the most persistent and problematic to human health – from 81 community public drinking water treatment plants, according to Peter Goodman, director of the Kentucky Division of Water. One or more PFAS compound was detected at 41 of the water treatment plants, mostly in surface water sources. PFOS was the most common compound, detected in 33 samples, according to the state report released Wednesday.
None of the samples exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency’s suggested limit of 70 parts per trillion. About 83 percent of the samples with detections – which represents about 96 percent of the study population’s water supply – had PFAS levels below 5 ppt. The South Shore water treatment plant in Greenup County had the highest combined PFAS level of about 40 ppt.
Bowling Green Municipal Utilities, one of the sites sampled, did not have detectable levels of PFAS.
“PFAS is so pervasive, we would not have been surprised if it showed up in trace amounts. But we were really pleased that it didn’t,” BGMU water systems manager Mike Gardner said.
Relative to other states experiencing levels exceeding the EPA health advisory guidance, Goodman suggested he was pleased with the results.
“The results were encouraging. We didn’t know what we were going to find,” he said.
To ensure accurate results, the state team collected quality assurance samples like laboratory blanks, trip blanks and field blanks and followed quality assurance protocols specific to the task. People collecting samples were required to have cotton clothing washed six times, polish-free nails and deodorant-free arms.
About half of the sites represented surface water and the other half represented groundwater supplies. The state selected random sites scattered across each river basin and sites located near potential sources of PFAS contamination. (Higher levels of PFAS tend to be located near military fire training sites, airports that use firefighting foam and industries that manufacture PFAS.)
“This was no easy task,” said Goodman, who applauded the cabinet staff for going beyond their normal work duties for the study. “The development of the lab methods was unique. And logistically, it was a very rigorous study.”
But the study isn’t over. The next steps will be examining ambient groundwater and surface water, forming a complete list of potential sources and consulting with the incoming administration to form a comprehensive plan.
“This study is the first step in a larger study,” Goodman said. “We feel very comfortable that the methodologies we used were appropriate and successful, but the conclusions of the study should not be read as a one-off.”
Some states are advancing their own PFAS standards in response to limited federal action – although Friday, the same day Hollywood debuted “Dark Waters,” a docudrama about the legal fight to access the environmental damage of “forever chemicals” and hold corporations accountable, the EPA announced that it will offer $4.8 million toward research examining the effects of PFAS.
There are approximately 5,000 PFAS chemicals, but there is adequate health data on just two: PFOA and PFOS, according to Carignan.
“The science is advancing quickly, after decades of zero to very slow advancement, at least in the public sector,” Carignan said.
Nationwide, there are 63 current policies in 18 states and 22 adopted policies in 13 states, according to Safer States, a network of environmental health coalitions that advocate for clean drinking water.
In Kentucky, Sen. Robby Mills, R-Henderson, sponsored a bill to prevent the use of firefighting foam containing PFAS to be used for training purposes. The bill was signed into law March 22 by Gov. Matt Bevin.
There are treatment options for PFAS in water supplies. Reverse osmosis can remove most PFAS compounds. Activated carbon filters – when replaced with sufficient frequency – will capture many PFASs, but the shorter-chain chemicals can break through the filters, according to Carignan.
Both reverse osmosis and activated carbon filters can be installed in individual homes. But they might not be feasible for utilities.
“Carbon is not a perfect solution, but it greatly improves (the water quality),” Goodman said, and reverse osmosis is effective, albeit expensive. “The electrical cost alone to run a reverse osmosis plant is enormous.”
PFAS products have been in production since the 1940s, but scientific understanding of the substances harmful effects is relatively new.
For one thing, the substances behave differently than other pollutants, such as dioxin, which binds to fats and doesn’t migrate into water. PFAS does migrate into water, according to Carignan.
“That’s one of the things that makes it problematic,” Carignan said. “Our bodies don’t eliminate them easily so levels build up over time.”
Meanwhile, some officials point fingers at the manufacturers themselves for reportedly burying evidence of the chemicals’ effects. The state of New York has filed a lawsuit against The Chemours Co., 3M Co., DuPont de Nemours Inc. and other companies for manufacturing the environmental pollutants.
The failure to recognize the danger earlier has inspired some researchers to reevaluate current science, chemical policies and economic structures.
“They’re asking ‘What’s the next PFAS, what are we missing now?’ ” Carignan said. “We’re putting our trust into companies. That trust can be betrayed. There is an inherent conflict of interest putting trust solely into an industry that is profiting from (what they’re manufacturing).”