Separating the Science from the Rumors about PFAS

Author: Erik Naylor Published: April 30, 2019

You may have heard of “PFAS” in a documentary or in the news recently. You also may have heard that, in the U.S., PFAS chemicals are in drinking water and in people’s blood. And you would be right to say—what!? How can this be? This article should help you understand what the presence of PFAS means for our health and the environment—and, perhaps more important, what it doesn’t mean.

Defining PFAS

Below are some important things to keep in mind as you react to new information and news in the media about PFAS:

●  The term “PFAS” refers to a group of thousands of chemicals, not just one. It is an acronym that stands for both poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. As with any big group, each member can have unique or similar properties. This means that what we know about one PFAS chemical may or may not be true for the others.

●  PFAS chemicals are not new. They are manmade and were originally branded as “Scotchgard” in the 1940s. We have been using them in a wide variety of products ever since. Some of the best-known uses for PFAS chemicals are in aqueous firefighting foams and in the production of non-stick coatings such as Teflon®. Other commonly used PFAS-containing products that are well-integrated into our society are fast-food wrappers, chrome plating for airplanes, waterproof coatings in raingear (think Gore-Tex®), and stain-resistant treatments in carpets and other fabrics.

●  PFAS chemicals have a combination of chemically stable properties that allow them to stay in water in the environment for long periods without breaking down. Because they are in many products that people use regularly, they are everywhere in the environment. We refer to PFAS chemicals as being “persistent” in contrast to many other common organic contaminants. PFAS chemicals are also water soluble, unlike many other common chemicals (for example: dioxins, DDT, or PCBs). This combination of environmental persistence and water affinity means that PFAS chemicals are widely distributed in surface and groundwater, they don’t break down, and they migrate easily, presenting a threat to our drinking water and aquatic habitats.

●  In addition to their environmental persistence, some PFAS chemicals accumulate in human and animal bodies over time. This “bioaccumulation” explains the presence of PFAS chemicals in peoples’ blood.

Determining Impacts on Human Health

Many people have been displeased to learn that PFAS chemicals are present in their drinking water or in their blood. This is understandable, especially in the absence of meaningful context for this information. It is important to know that, to date, toxicological science has focused on just a handful of these chemicals, specifically PFOA, PFOS, and GenX, and has identified them as harmful. The scientific community is still debating the levels at which these chemicals become harmful, and the answer varies, depending on whom you ask. So, at this time, we can’t really compare the toxicity of PFAS chemicals with that of other chemicals. More studies are needed to develop the data needed to really understand the toxicity of PFAS chemicals.

Regulations Past, Present, and Future

Even with limited information on PFAS toxicity, PFAS regulations have already begun to increase, and more regulations are on the way. The USEPA has released an action plan on PFAS regulation. The plan states that the USEPA intends to develop maximum contaminant limits for two of the most important PFAS chemicals: PFOA and PFOS. The State of Washington also has an action plan for addressing PFAS chemicals soon. Washington’s plan includes testing drinking water, developing cleanup levels, investigating effective cleanup methods, and restricting the sale of PFAS-containing products. Additionally, the Portland Water Bureau is taking steps to prevent PFAS contamination of Portland’s drinking water, including groundwater monitoring, identifying sources of PFAS chemicals to the environment, and regulating—and providing technical assistance to—facilities that manage hazardous materials. It is likely that PFAS will become increasingly prominent on the environmental cleanup radar for the foreseeable future.

Erik Naylor

Project Chemist/Environmental Scientist

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