Several Northeastern state governments are feverishly working to find and clean up two emerging chemicals considered toxic that have contaminated water and soil around the country, but toxicologists say states are missing hundreds more that are related with unknown health risks.
Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont are among the states systematically looking at hazardous waste sites, fire departments, and water supplies to determine locations where polyfluorinated and perfluorinated compounds—also known as PFAS chemicals—have concentrated at toxic levels. But with states’ limited resources and unanswered questions about health risks and remediation, the contaminants could be going unchecked in drinking water, soil, and groundwater.
There are hundreds of compounds within the PFAS group, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Companies that are or were in the PFAS-producing industry include Arkema, DuPont, 3M, Chemours, and BASF Corporation.
“One of the...biggest faults that we find in the regulatory approaches that are being used for PFAS compounds are whether out of convenience or ignorance, they are being treated as one compound,” Judi Durda, vice president and principal toxicologist at Integral Consulting, told Bloomberg BNA.
The compounds have been used to manufacture non-stick and stain-resistant coatings in clothing, fast food wrappers, carpets and other consumer products.
Many states have found at least a handful of sites contaminated with two types of PFAS, though those may be only the tip of the iceberg.
The two types—perfluorooctane sulfonate, known as PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, known as PFOA—are getting the most attention in states’ environmental departments, but other compounds in the PFAS family also are being considered, Durda said.
Lesser-known compounds that have been found in water supplies in New Hampshire, for example, include perfluorohexanoic acid (PFHxA), perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA), perfluoro-n-pentanoic acid (PFPEA) and perfluorobutanoic acid (PFBA).
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has provided guidance to states regarding PFOA and PFOS, but does not yet regulate them with soil or water standards.
Tracking Multiple Toxins
The state of New Hampshire is making an effort to avoid the pitfall Durda outlined.
“We like to analyze for as many compounds as we can get, so typically 20-30 of them,” said Lea Anne Atwell, project manager at the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services’ Hazardous Waste Remediation Bureau. “There’s more compounds that we’re analyzing for, but we haven’t seen those [in test results].”
Atwell and representatives from other New England states spoke Oct. 19 at a conference of the Association for Environmental Health and Sciences Foundation in Amherst, Mass.
The state found PFOS and PFOA above 70 parts per trillion at about 60 percent of unlined landfills, and found the compounds in groundwater.
New Hampshire has set standards for acceptable levels of PFOA and PFOS, Atwell said, “but our approach is that we wanted to see what’s out there…and what we’re dealing with.”
The state of Massachusetts is considering creating standards for “possibly multiple” PFAS compounds, according to Paul Locke, assistant commissioner for waste site cleanup at the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. But, the department also has to consider other priorities, like 1,4-dioxane, which Locke said appears in environmental samples more often.
“We’re balancing and trying to figure that out right now,” he told Bloomberg Environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency has deemed 1,4-dioxane a “likely human carcinogen” that has been found in groundwater throughout the U.S. The chemical is used in products such as dyes, greases, varnishes, and paint strippers.
According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, most people in the U.S. have one form of PFAS chemicals in their blood, especially PFOA and PFOS.
The EPA released a health advisory last winter for PFOA and PFOS. When people are exposed to PFOA or PFOS at more than 70 parts per trillion over their lifetimes, the EPA said, they may be at risk for developmental effects to fetuses, testicular and kidney cancer, liver tissue damage, immune system effects, thyroid effects, and changes in cholesterol.
Some of the states’ searches for perfluorinated compounds were set into motion by the EPA’s third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, also known as UCMR 3. The rule, published in 2012, asks large public water systems to test water for several perfluorinated compounds.
The compounds in the rule are PFOA, PFOS, perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluoroheptanoic acid (PFHpA) and perfluorobutanesulfonic acid (PFBS).
Before the EPA rule, few state agencies were looking for any of the compounds in that family.
“Why don’t people look for them? Because we don’t have standards for them,” Locke said at the Amherst conference. “As long as nobody’s looking for it, it’s not there.”
To address PFAS, Massachusetts is now monitoring water supplies more frequently, blending water from multiple wells to dilute the concentration of PFAS, deactivating wells where PFAS is found, and treating contaminated wells.
The toxicity of perfluorinated compounds is a little more clear than that of polyfluorinated compounds, Elizabeth Denly, quality assurance and chemistry systems director for TRC Solutions in Lowell, Mass., told Bloomberg Environment. But, it’s unclear what the lack of state and federal standards means for public health.
“Right now it’s hard to know without knowing their potential toxicity,” Denly said.