Getting ready for the day, heating up a quick meal, even a quick sip of water from your tap can expose you to a group of toxic substances dubbed “forever chemicals” that are now the subject of increased scrutiny over their long-term effects at even small levels of exposure.
Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS for short, have been around since the 1940’s to make cookware, carpets, clothing, and furniture because they resist water, heat, and oil.
But PFAS waste is being seen in thousands of water systems across the country, including in our area.
“One thing that’s consistent across all these chemicals is they do not break apart in the environment,” said David Andrews, Senior Scientist for Environmental Working Group.
Andrews says that while agencies have known about the harms of these chemicals for decades, regulations have been minimal.
“This family represents over 1,000 industrial chemicals approved in the United States,” Andrews said. “These chemicals highlight a few failures of regulation of industrial chemicals.
As more research is being done on PFAS, the growing number of health problems these chemicals are linked to. Some issues include an increased risk of cancer, obesity, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, growth and learning delays in some babies and children, and decreased effectiveness of vaccines.
New research also shows that while the Environmental Protection Agency has set advisory levels for exposure at 70 parts per trillion, these issues can develop at far smaller ratios.
HOW DO WE GET EXPOSED?
Some of the exposure comes from contamination in the food supply as well as through exposure through consumer products like non-stick cookware, fire-retardant clothing, certain makeup products, even the lining of take-out containers and pizza boxes and typical indoor dust can carry it.
But primarily it’s through contaminated drinking water that enters the system through the manufacturing and discharging of the chemicals into the environment.
Environmental Working Group says the number of water systems found to have PFAS in them is growing at an alarming rate, now more than 2,800 public and private sites in all 50 states.
Locally, three locations have been found to have PFAS in the water, according to EWG and data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Roaring Spring Municipal Water Authority, at 10 ppt and State College Borough Water Authority at 4.1 ppt, have total PFAS rates below the federal EPA advisory levels, while a private well owned by State of the Art, an electrical equipment manufacturer in Centre County, has a rate nearly three times higher than that advisory rate at 205 ppt.
Brian Heiser, Executive Director of State College Borough Water Authority told 6 News earlier this month that the PFAS exposure comes from a non-public well and the flow is not going toward their well. He said they are testing the water and monitoring the situation.
Roaring Springs Brough referred us to their engineer who has not responded back to our request for comment. State of the Art did not return requests for comment.
GETTING RID OF PFAS: NO EASY TASK
But even small amounts can be enough to cause problems and filtering them out is challenging.
“They are actually quite difficult to remove from water and it’s quite costly to have those filters in place,” Andrews said.
The goal is now to eliminate them from being released and work with water systems to get those rates down.
The Biden administration announced in October a three-year initiative to regulate and restrict the use of these chemicals, by having the Environmental Protection Agency come up with rules to stop companies from dumping PFAS into waterways and launching a national testing strategy with the goal of implementing new national drinking water standards for the two main classes of PFAS, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), by the fall of 2023.
Last Tuesday, the Pennsylvania DEP’s Environmental Quality Board overwhelmingly approved a proposal for stricter limits on PFAS in waterways that will be open for public comment next year, from the current federal advisory level of 70 ppt to 14 ppt for PFOA, and 18 ppt for PFOS. It comes as a statewide sampling program found one-third of more than 400 sites tested across Pennsylvania contained one of the chemicals.
Consumers who live in areas with PFAS in their water can purchase filtration systems that vary from relatively inexpensive, to more elaborate systems that can run several hundred dollars.
But Andrews says this is all just a drop in an eventual waterfall.
“Right now we’re just playing a game of catch up. Just trying to understand where the contamination is, who’s using the chemicals, where they are being released,”