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As Pennsylvania Limits PFAS in Drinking Water, the War on ‘Forever Chemicals’ Is Just Beginning
Water

As Pennsylvania Limits PFAS in Drinking Water, the War on ‘Forever Chemicals’ Is Just Beginning

As Thinx, Coca-Cola & other companies come under fire for products with PFAS, local researchers are racing to understand the long-term health effects of these dangerous chemicals.

When Richard Hamilton was stationed at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Warminster and the Joint Reserve Base in Willow Grove in the 1990s, he didn’t know he was being exposed. Every so often, the hangars were emptied out, and firefighting foam was discharged from overhead vents to be cleaned out. Hamilton and his colleagues would come back into the building to see the foam all over the place, waiting to be washed out.

At the time, Hamilton didn’t know anything about the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS, that helped the foam rob a fire of oxygen. But now, as a toxicologist and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Drexel University College of Medicine, he understands that these “forever chemicals” – so-called because of their resistance to natural degradation – are prevalent, persistent, and potentially dangerous.

Pennsylvania’s PFAS limit for drinking water

Hamilton was part of a multidisciplinary team that spent the past five years working with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to design new regulations, announced in January, that set maximums for the acceptable concentration of PFAS in the state’s drinking water systems.

(Pennsylvania’s recent PFAS limit is) “we think is safe for everyone’s health and doesn’t bankrupt the economy and make it impossible to provide any clean water at all.”

Richard Hamilton, toxicologist and chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Drexel University College of Medicine

The action is part of a growing recognition that these chemicals, which were invented nearly a century ago and can now be found in wildlife, water, and soil, can be harmful to humans and animals. The foam used at the naval bases is believed to be the cause of a wide range of serious health conditions.

“We have to really start understanding this by following those activities and those chemicals from decades ago and finding these areas of concern specific to their use,” Hamilton said.

Pennsylvania’s new restrictions set maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS – two of the most common chemicals in the thousands-strong PFAS family – at 14 and 18 parts per trillion, respectively. Those numbers are slightly higher than the working group’s suggested targets, Hamilton said, to take into account the cost of measuring, monitoring, and mitigating the chemicals. The result is a limit that “we think is safe for everyone’s health and doesn’t bankrupt the economy and make it impossible to provide any clean water at all,” he said.

The regulations are part of a growing effort across the country to monitor, restrict or ban the use of PFAS as researchers continue to explore where they are found and the harm they cause.

PFAS, PFAS, everywhere.

The period underwear brand Thinx recently settled a lawsuit alleging their products contain PFAS, while Coca-Cola is facing a class action over the chemicals’ alleged presence in its Simply Tropical fruit juice. A recent study also found that eating one freshwater fish is equivalent to drinking a month’s worth of PFAS-contaminated water, demonstrating that decades since Hamilton’s experience on Navy bases, forever chemicals are increasingly inescapable.

The field of research on PFAS-related health effects and remediation techniques is still in its relative infancy. Erica McKenzie, a professor at the Temple University College of Engineering, has been studying PFAS since 2013, which is when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began monitoring their presence in drinking water. She researches what she called the “fate and transport” of forever chemicals – their uptake and migration through land and water ecosystems.

“There is still a fair amount of uncertainty around even these most studied compounds [PFOA and PFOS], and that doesn’t even begin to touch on those thousands of other compounds that are out there,” McKenzie said. “For a lot of them, we have little to no toxicological information.”

While PFAS can be found in water, the chemicals’ presence elsewhere is more difficult to identify and treat. Christopher Sales, a professor in the Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering Department at Drexel University who was also part of the DEP working group, said PFAS are often used in textile manufacturing and discharged in wastewater. Those textiles are then used to make products stain-resistant or waterproof, like rain jackets hiking pants, and even tablecloths. A recent study found that 75% of items labeled “stain-resistant” or “water-resistant” dedicated PFAS. Hamilton, for example, recently found an old can of water-repellent spray he used to protect his boots and realized that he’s likely been exposing himself to PFAS for years because of it.

Food packaging is another primary area of concern. Microwaveable popcorn bags are often coated on the inside with PFAS-containing materials to keep the butter from leaching through the packaging, Sales said. Fast food containers often use similar coatings, McKenzie said. (Even compostable varieties often contain PFAS.)

For consumers, knowledge is power. “Understanding what (PFAS) is in and using less of that is an important step,” Sales said. “People don’t realize how commonplace it is.”

There has been comparatively less attention paid to PFAS exposure through food than water, McKenzie said, but it’s a growing concern as researchers learn more.

“There is more evidence to suggest it can be a really important exposure route,” McKenzie said. “It’s also one that’s harder to control.”

Dawn Hissner, environmental group manager at the DEP, said PFAS are considered “emerging contaminants” because scientists still have so much to learn about them.

“Not only is the research evolving as to the health effects, but also methodologies to sample and treat them, so it’s going to take a lot more research and a lot of time to have complete answers,” Hissner said.

Still, enough information is available to urge caution around PFAS exposure, Hamilton said. Forever chemicals have carcinogenic potential, but the level of contamination required to cause cancer is much higher than for other health effects. Depending on which of the thousands of chemicals is at issue, those effects vary, he said.

Pregnant mothers and their children are at risk of issues related to bone growth and neurologic activity when exposed to PFOA, Hamilton said. With PFOS, meanwhile, evidence is growing that exposure could compromise the immune system. Others could potentially damage the thyroid or the liver.

How to mitigate PFAS risks as a consumer

As scientists work to develop efficient and effective ways to break down PFAS chemicals, there are important steps those in the Philadelphia region and beyond can take to limit their exposure.

Frequent vacuuming can mitigate the risk of contaminants that tend to build up in house dust. Water filters can help remove PFAS from drinking water, and water quality reports are available from the Philadelphia Water Department and other public water systems to inform residents. Those who use private wells can test their water for contamination levels.

Unfortunately, McKenzie said, there isn’t enough information to make “sweeping statements” about what is and is not acceptable to eat, drink or come into contact with. But education is an essential first step. Industry and regulatory action are also critical.

Companies like outdoor retailer REI are committing to removing the chemicals from their products, and a Maine law that will ban PFAS from being used in most products by 2030 offers a template for how states can proceed.

But, federal action will be necessary for the most widespread impact. The EPA issued a proposal last August to designate PFOA and PFOS hazardous substances, which would increase transparency on their use and make it easier to hold polluters accountable.

As certain compounds are phased out and others take their place, society should develop a more thorough understanding of their risks, Hamilton said. That’s the only way to avoid the situation he found himself in back in the ‘90s.

“We have to really understand the next generation of these chemicals well,” Hamilton said, “before we repeat what happened back then.”

Cover photo of rain-resistant jacket by Claudio Schwarz on Unsplash

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