“Water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink,” laments Ancient Mariner of Coleridge – at least not safely. A recent study published by the American Chemical Society shows that this can be the case all over the world, and not just on its small boat. The results found traces of the chemical class PFAS in rainwater all the way to unindustrialized Antarctica.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, PFAS, are a group of thousands of chemicals used to make non-stick surfaces like Teflon cookware and make other things stain resistant. They repel grease, oil, water and heat. You can find them used in cookware, clothing, cosmetics, food packaging, and fire-fighting foam.
“These are man-made chemicals that can be considered super surfactants – they are like detergents. Sometimes they are used directly, sometimes they are impurities and sometimes they are formed by the breakdown of other substances” , explained the study’s lead author, Ian Cousins, Ph.D., of the Department of Environmental Sciences at Stockholm University. “PFAAs will never degrade in the environment, which has led them and other PFAS to be called the forever chemicals.”
They were developed in the 1940s and only recently have scientists started testing for the presence of PFAS. The study measured rainwater, soil and surface water for just four of the chemicals, and the scientists found them everywhere.
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Samples taken near a fluoropolymer chemical plant in China are the most polluted, and samples taken from rural areas showed as much concentration of chemicals as those found in urban areas.
Water from Antarctica and the Tibetan Plateau, which were rarely touched by humans, exceeded the US Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) health advisory level. This proves that crystal-clear streams in remote high mountains and even fresh snowflakes falling over Antarctica are contaminated with man-made chemicals.
How dangerous are PFAS?
Different PFAS have different toxicity to humans and other animals. For example, the United States Food Administration (FDA) has authorized the use of certain PFAS for food contact applications. Other PFAS have been linked to (according to the EPA):
- Increased risk of cancers like prostate, kidney and testicles
- Developmental delays in children
- Decreased fertility
- Increased cholesterol and obesity
- Reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections
- Interference with the body’s natural hormones
- Suppression of vaccine response in children
“Long-term, low-level exposure to PFAAs can suppress immune responses,” Cousins explained. “Children may not be able to make antibodies effectively after receiving vaccines.”
The study, the National Institutes of Health, EPA, FDA and other agencies and officials say more research into specific PFASs and their effects on people and animals is essential. Scientists are also calling for better detection tools.
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In June, the EPA issued stricter interim health advisories on specific concentration levels of PFAS indicating the maximum level of parts per trillion and quadrillion per liter per liquid (sample). For PFOA alone, the recommended concentration has dropped by a factor of 100. The agency plans to publish a “PFAS National Drinking Water Regulation” in the fall.
Cousin’s study pointed out that in 22 years, the PFOA guideline for West Virginia has dropped by a factor of 37.5 million to the current EPA level. The current level is lower than all rainwater samples taken for the study worldwide and 14 times lower than the lowest level found on the Tibetan Plateau.
According to EPA guidelines, all rainwater should be filtered to be below advisory levels before it can be drunk.
“There’s not much we can do to protect ourselves from long-term, low-level exposure. PFAAs are also in the food chain, so in all of our food as well as in our water,” explained Cousins. have to live with this uncertainty while waiting for PFAA concentrations to slowly decline. They will not degrade, but they will slowly dissolve in the depths of the oceans.”
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The EPA’s guidelines for the concentration of PFAS in drinking water are low because the agency has considered other ways humans ingest PFAS that are more difficult to measure. Inhaling household dust from carpets with stain repellent, breast milk, swallowing contaminated soil, working in manufacturing or firefighting, even breathing sea air can add to your chemical intake.
PFAS also accumulates in fish, which is called bioaccumulation, which can increase the amount of PFAS in our systems. Stockholm authorities have advised the public temporarily not to eat local freshwater fish due to high levels of chemicals, the study found.
“They shouldn’t be in nature, and microbes have not adapted to degrade them. The carbon-fluorine bond is the strongest in organic chemistry. The fully fluorinated carbon chains of PFAAs can only be degraded if a lot of energy is used, like high temperature incineration,” Cousins said. “They can be filtered, like with activated carbon [filters], water, but it is still necessary to destroy the filtrate – activated carbon contaminated with PFAA – and regularly renew the activated carbon. It’s going to be expensive.”
Even being diluted by ocean waters doesn’t remove pollutants from our water cycle – the study calls this the global cycle.
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“A recent study has provided evidence that some PFAS…can be significantly enriched in marine spray aerosols (SSAs) and transported through the atmosphere to the shore where they will be deposited and contaminate fresh waters, drinking waters and soils of surface,” Cousins wrote.
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“There have been some efforts to remove impurities from products, but unfortunately due to past mistakes we have already rejected thousands of tons of PFAAs,” Cousins of Mitigation said. “The ones we discuss in the article are not used these days outside of China, but remain in the environment and circulate between the Earth’s surface and atmosphere.
The 3M company actually phased out some longer chain chemicals in the early 2000s.
Several agencies in the United States are working to reduce PFAS and monitor their effects, according to an EPA press release. The FDA is stepping up testing on food and packaging. The Department of Defense cleans up polluted military sites and seeks to reduce the use of PFAS. And the Department of Agriculture is working with dairies to reduce contamination.
What can you do now?
If you are concerned about the levels of PFAS in your drinking water, the EPA recommends asking your water utility for the levels or having the water tested by state-certified laboratories. Consider installing a certified water treatment system/filter if levels are unacceptable.