By DEBORAH E. LANS
GHENT–It is a word salad: PFOA, PFOS, “Gen X chemicals,” persistent, bioaccumulative, forever chemicals, emerging contaminants, regrettable substitutions. These are some of the terms applied to PFAS — per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — a class of more than 14,000 chemicals that are water and grease repellent and have been used in everything from dental floss to non-stick cooking products, from fire-fighting foam to cosmetics, from food packaging and pizza boxes to waterproof clothing.
PFAS are most prevalent where the chemicals themselves have been manufactured or applied in a manufacturing process — think of Hoosick Falls where at one time 11 facilities made “Teflon” or integrated it into products.
However, Bard’s Professor Elias Dueker says PFAS are “ubiquitous,” and recent studies reported in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology (JESEE) reveal that “over 98% of the US population has detectable levels of PFAS in their blood. In areas with contaminated water supplies, drinking water is a major contributor to PFAS exposure, although exposures can also come from diet, consumer products, and building materials.”
In addition, military bases, airports and other fire training sites are sources of PFAS, as the chemicals are used in firefighting foams. Waste disposal is another source; as Mary Beth Bianconi of Delaware Engineering explains, “bio-solids” that are the product of waste treatment are often applied to soils as a fertilizer and may contain PFAS, which plants do not test or treat for. Other sources may be wastewater effluent and leaching from septic systems and old, uncapped landfills.
The JESEE article reports that there are an estimated 14,700 compounds classified as PFAS. The health risks associated with a handful of those have been studied in depth. Health risks include various forms of cancer, birth defects and reproductive system harm, immune system, liver, thyroid and kidney damage and cardiovascular injury. Ironically, while non-stick pans have been touted as promoting heart-healthy cooking, minimizing the need to use oils and fats, PFAS are known to elevate cholesterol levels.
PFAS are “bioaccumulative,” meaning that they do not readily flush through the body’s systems but rather amass over time.
Similarly, one of the traits that makes PFAS useful in manufacturing — durability — means that it is “persistent” in the environment, not readily breaking down into innocuous components. Thus, even though the use of a handful of PFAS in manufacturing has been banned federally and by some individual states, it remains with us in the air, soil and water.
Moreover, other “regrettable substitutes” for the specifically-banned chemicals are still used in personal care items, cleaning, water-proofing, cookware and stain-resistant products. The substitutes, by virtue of being new chemical blends, simply may not as yet have been vetted for their health risks.
The regulation of PFAS has been slow in coming. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has known about some of the risks posed since 1998. It has known of the presence of PFAS in drinking water since 2001. In recent years it has issued health advisories as to PFOS and PFOA, two PFAS compounds that were detected as harmful beginning in the last 1990s, but no enforceable standards.
New York, as a leader in the area, enacted a 10 ppt (parts per trillion) maximum contaminant level (MCL) standard in 2020. Finally in March 2023 the EPA proposed enforceable MCLs at drastically lower levels for six specific PFAS chemicals of 4 ppt. (for PFOS and PFAS) and 1 ppt for “Gen X” and three other chemicals, noting that “the levels at which negative health outcomes could occur are much lower than previously understood.”
The EPA proposal also classified 23 additional PFAS compounds as “emerging contaminants” whose levels in drinking water will be monitored at more than 10,000 public water systems nationwide. Finally, as a result of President Biden’s Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law, the EPA will provide more than $10 billion to address removal of PFAS, more than half of the funds going to small or disadvantaged communities.
Robert Hayes of Environmental Advocates of New York (EANY) argues that even the EPA-proposed levels are too high, as there is no safe level of exposure to these chemicals and as current testing techniques can detect PFOA and PFOS at 2 ppt. He, like many clean-water advocates also urges that PFAS not be addressed on a chemical-by-chemical basis, as is currently the case, but rather as a class.
A letter from EANY and 36 other groups to the EPA called the presence of PFAS in drinking water a “public health crisis that threatens the health and lives of millions of people in the United States.” Mr. Hayes says at least 440,000 New Yorkers are at risk.
So, what is the local experience of PFAS? The state Department of Health (DOH) publishes an annual Water System Report that identifies (among other things) the levels of PFOS and PFOA — the two most studied PFAS — at every water system in the county. In addition, public water suppliers are required to issue Annual Drinking Water Quality Reports. All of these reports are posted on line.
Because the county has little history of industry, its risks are relatively low. In addition, because so much of the water supply derives from private wells that are rarely tested for PFAS, there is little evidence of contamination.
That said, in 2022 levels of PFOA at 14 ppt, exceeding New York’s 10 ppt MCL, were detected in Valatie. Levels of PFOS just barely under the state limit (at 99 ppt) were also seen. The village notified residents about the former but not the latter and shut down the affected well. Further testing for PFOS is occurring and treatment of the PFOS is planned or under way.
In 2017, as a result of the monitoring of wells downgradient from an inactive landfill where PFAS had been detected, PFAS were detected at the New Lebanon High School, but private wells that were tested were cleared. A treatment system was installed at the high school, and monitoring continued. In 2022, testing again detected a PFOS exceedance (at 13 ppt) at the high school. The well in question was taken offline. Additional filtration was implemented.
According to New Lebanon Conservation Advisory Council Co-Chair Peg Munves, virtually all water in New Lebanon is derived from private wells. The town has been proactive in formulating a drinking water source protection plan. In addition, the town monitors a number of wells regularly, testing for some 70 possible contaminants; for reasons of cost and because past testing has not revealed PFAS above the state’s 10 ppt MCL, the town does not test the wells for PFAS.
In addition to the Valatie and New Lebanon results, the state’s 2022 DOH reports revealed PFAS exceeding the state’s MCL at two other regulated water supply sites: the Hillsdale Garden Apartments and Maple Lane Associates. Results that would exceed the EPA’s proposed 4 ppt levels were seen at Breezy Hills Community, Heimroth Mobile Home Park and Pine Tree Mobile Home Park.
These results should be of comfort. But, as Yanna Liang, chair of SUNY’s Department of Environmental and Sustainable Engineering puts it, PFAS “are everywhere. Atmospheric deposition (the movement of particles, gases or contaminants from the atmosphere to the earth’s surface via snow, rain and clouds) has even brought PFAS to Antarctica.”
A variety of treatments to remove PFAS from water exist, using granular activated carbon, ion exchange techniques and high-pressure reverse osmosis membrane systems. While expensive, treatments are available not only for commercial but also for home use.
Professor Liang and her team have received government funding to test green technologies. Since plants uptake water from soil, they can sequester PFAS in their leaves. Professor Liang is testing techniques to enhance and accelerate the natural processes, where that is desirable, such as in wetlands and water-side plants, and to minimize PFAS uptake where it would be undesirable, such as by vegetables and fruit trees. Her group is also exploring methods for disposal of PFAS-infused plant materials after harvest.
Since manufacturers are not required to label produces for PFAS, avoiding them can be a challenge. EANY’s Mr. Hayes suggests that products said to be “waterproof,” “stain repellant” or “dirt repellant” are likely to use PFAS. An increasing number of manufacturers, such as Levi Strauss, Patagonia, KEEN, IKEA and Marmot, have announced the intention to remove, or have already removed, PFAS from their products. The website pfacentral.org lists PFAS-free products and also contains scientific materials and PFAS news.
On January 16, Governor Hochul proposed her 2024-25 State Budget. While it included $250 million for the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, New York’s core funding source for guaranteeing safe water, the proposed amount was 50% of the level of annual clean water funding compared with the past five budgets.
EANY’s Director of Clean Water Robert Hayes called on the state Legislature to reject the budget cuts, writing, “The governor’s plan to slash clean water funding by half will cost New Yorkers money, jobs and their health. The threats to drinking water across the state are growing, not shrinking. The governor’s proposal means fewer communities will get the help they need to protect their fundamental right to clean water and revitalize local economies.”
The prevalence of toxic PFAS in New Yorkers’ drinking water was among the threats cited.