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PFAS - Uncertain Times

Recently, a local TV news station stopped by our Great Lakes Bay Regional office to learn more about a new contaminant commonly referred to as PFAS, but known scientifically as polyfluoroalkyd substances. The region was the home to two military bases that used Fire Fighting Foaming Agents (FFFA) to suppress fires. Not surprisingly, the military trains, trains, and trains again, so with each fire-fighting training exercise, fire-fighting foam was sprayed onto runway surfaces. As was prevalent, the fire-fighting foam was made of PFAS compounds and, as the fire-fighting foam was washed from the runways, the stormwater flows carried the PFAS contaminants to our lakes, rivers, and groundwater. In Oscoda Township in Michigan, home to one of these former military air bases, the residents obtain their drinking water from groundwater or lakes and they have been dealing with this new drinking water contaminant threat firsthand. Today, this is not only a common theme near military bases, but also near industries that used PFAS for waterproofing and stain-resistance.

DuPont and 3M were the primary manufacturers of these compounds. DuPont made Teflon® branded products and 3M made ScotchGuard® branded products. We all loved them. These products made pans easier to clean and kept the red flavored drink my three-year-old spilled from his tippy cup from leaving a permanent stain on the carpet. It kept oil from soaking through pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, and freezer paper. It was everywhere and pervasive throughout our daily lives. The most commonly used PFAS compounds were polyfluoro octinol sulfonate (PFOS) and polyfluoro octinol acid (PFOA). The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR – a division of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention [CDC]) estimated that by 1998 nearly all Americans had 30 parts-per-billion (ppb) of PFOS and 5 ppb of PFOA in our blood stream.

The prominence of PFAS began in the early 1970s. This was thought to be an amazing chemical that coated your pans to prevent food from sticking. It also prevented stains in carpet and clothing, and it even waterproofed your camping gear, work clothes and boots. It didn’t stop there, as these compounds seemed to be added to everything, including carpeting, food containers and personal hygiene products. This unique molecule was attracted to water at one end and repelled water at the other end. Like a mosquito larva attaching to the water surface, PFAS attached to multiple types of surfaces. As the PFAS molecules line-up, side-by-side, a coating forms that protects fabric and paper from either water, oil, or stains and for fire-fighting it creates a smothering foaming agent.

It turns out that our bodies bioaccumulate PFAS, and it takes several years for our bodies to eliminate it. The half-life of PFOA is approximately five years and the half-life for PFOS is about eight years. While health data is limited, some does show adverse health effects from long-term exposure to PFAS, though it’s still difficult to determine “How much exposure is OK?” More toxicological and epidemiological studies are needed. Currently, we believe health effects include thyroid damage, high cholesterol, testicular cancer, and effects on kidney function for children.

One of the problems is that our current toxicological (animal studies) and epidemiological (human studies) data points often do not correlate and in some cases even conflict. The weak data is likely caused by two current challenges: 1) Rodents eliminate PFAS from their bodies in approximately 4 days, while humans take several years to eliminate PFAS, and 2) current epidemiological studies are mostly “observation-based” rather than “experimental-based.” We are clearly in the early stages of understanding the true health effects and allowable exposures to PFAS compounds. Unfortunately, for the growing list of communities affected by this issue, this atmosphere of uncertainty creates difficult challenges for municipal leaders as they react to ensure not only the health and welfare of their citizens, but also the economic viability of their community.

With memories of the Flint, Michigan lead-contaminated drinking water crisis still strong, the State of Michigan is determined to lead the nation in its response to PFAS contamination. As such, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has required all municipalities to investigate the sanitary effluent of all potential PFAS contributors, and while this seems well intentioned, it places yet additional burdens on already far-stretched local government resources. Municipal wastewater treatment plants treat sanitary waste water from residential, commercial and industrial operations. As a by-product of treating sanitary waste water, what is known as a filter cake is generated from dewatering the leftover sludge. Commonly, this filter cake is either sent to a landfill or composted for fertilizing agricultural land. As a result, since there is potential for PFAS to be present in the filter cake, there is an equally strong potential for PFAS to be present on the agricultural land and/or landfill leachate where these filter cakes are disposed.

This potential growth in pathways for exposure, coupled with the ever-expanding number of communities being found with PFAS contamination, reinforces the need for accelerating the studies to determine “How much is OK?” Until this is better understood, local municipalities are forced to protect their communities, which today often requires them to redirect limited funds otherwise allocated to other critical services. Just as our municipalities are emerging from revenue shortfalls, responding to the issues caused by PFAS has the potential to strain municipal finances.

AKT Peerless has helped municipalities and businesses with navigating the uncertainties associated with emerging contaminants, so if you need assistance with PFAS or other emerging contaminants, please call us at 800-985-7633 -- we can help.


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