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Topic of Cancer: How PFAS Threaten Our Water

A family of toxins known as PFAS has gotten its closeup on the silver screen via Dark Waters. Will regulators take note?




Dark Waters
A scene from Dark Waters. (Photo: Focus Films)

They’re a family of chemicals famous enough to have a Hollywood movie made about them – starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, no less. They are also known to cause cancer, thyroid problems and other serious health issues. And worryingly for environmental justice advocates and disadvantaged communities, growing data highlighting the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) problem nationally and in California suggest that the impact may be hardest felt by those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

“It makes sense that there is going to be a tremendous burden in these communities from these chemicals,” says Andria Ventura, toxics program manager for Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. A reason, says Ventura, is how typical PFAS hotspots—like fence-line neighborhoods abutting manufacturing facilities, military bases and airports—are more usually found in communities that aren’t just economically disadvantaged, they’re already under assault by various sources of air, water and other toxic pollution.


Scientist: “There are huge inequalities in this country around who is exposed to health harms from pollution.”


What’s more, while the persistent and mobile nature of PFAS chemicals means that no neighborhood is safe from contamination, smaller water systems—particularly those serving disadvantaged communities—face an uphill task in tackling the problem due to the higher probability of aging infrastructure and limited resources, as compared to larger utilities. “We have to assume the state as a whole is impacted,” says Ventura. “It’s just that larger cities and urban centers are going to have far more ability to address these problems.”

Found in a wide array of everyday items, from non-stick cookware to food packaging, and from carpets to clothing, PFAS have saturated the marketplace and the environment, some for many decades. This alarms experts, partly because of the sheer volume of different PFAS compounds—current estimates put the number at more than 4,700—and partly because of the piecemeal way the federal government is tackling the problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which didn’t begin phasing out the two most common such chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, until the early aughts— and which still hasn’t succeeded entirely in eliminating them— set a non-enforceable health advisory safety level in 2016 of a combined 70 parts per trillion (ppt). However, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—a national nonprofit watchdog that has created an interactive national PFAS contamination maphas proposed a health-based standard for combined PFAS contamination in drinking water of 1 ppt. “Even at very low levels, exposure to PFAS can harm the immune system or reproductive development,” says Tasha Stoiber, a senior EWG scientist.

When asked about the EWG’s 1 ppt standard, Blair Robertson, a spokesperson for the California State Water Resources Control Board, wrote that the agency is “confident” in the non-mandatory response levels (70 ppt of combined PFOA and PFOS) and notification levels (5.1 ppt for PFOA and 6.5 ppt for PFOS) established by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, “and will let the EWG report, which is based on preliminary data that had not been vetted, speak for itself.” Nevertheless, California is currently working on revising the response level downward.

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Earlier this year, the state water board began a phased investigation of contaminated sites. The results from phase one, made available through this online portal, show PFAS in nearly half the 600 drinking-water system sites tested, with 11 drinking-water-well detections registering above the state’s response level, and 12 drinking-water wells detected at combined concentrations above 100 ppt.


People who cook at home have lower PFAS levels in their systems compared to those who eat fast foods, the packaging for which commonly contains these chemicals.


Using the raw data from this first phase of the investigation, EWG and Capital & Main found PFAS detections above 1 ppt in 94 different water systems – nearly half the individual systems included in the study.

Both nationally and in California, a link appears between low-income residents and people of color, and proximity to PFAS-contaminated sites, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “There are huge inequalities in this country around who is exposed to health harms from pollution,” says Gretchen Goldman, research director at the UCS Center for Science and Democracy.

Using Northeastern University’s Social Science Environmental Health Institute’s PFAS site tracker—which includes government websites, news articles and publicly available documents—along with state demographic data, the UCS found there are 15 percent more low-income households and 11 percent more people of color within one mile of a contaminated site than in the average California neighborhood, according to the UCS’s calculations. Some of the state’s most vulnerable populations have an elevated chance of living within five miles of a PFAS-contaminated site, the UCS found.

The results from phase two of the state investigation—conducted at drinking-water wells near a variety of manufacturing and fire-training sites—are expected to be available early next year. In the meantime, there remains a broad data gap. Of the more than 7,000 publicly regulated drinking-water systems in California, many are small systems prone to poorquality issues. Most have not yet been required to monitor for PFAS. On top of these are unregulated private drinking-water wells that serve, along with systems boasting fewer than 15 service connections, as many as 2 million Californians.

That said, the state has in recent years taken steps to bridge inequality issues between water systems, such as the recently passed Senate Bill 200, which creates a funding mechanism for safe drinking-water solutions in disadvantaged communities. For PFAS, a new law goes into effect at the start of next year giving the water board the authority to order public water systems to monitor for these chemicals, and to alert Californians in its annual water quality report if detected. The bill was originally written to make testing and notification of PFAS mandatory but was diluted because of push-back from water agencies concerned about their limited financial resources.


All participants in a Los Angeles study had a measurable level of one particular PFAS compound in their blood.


In answer to questions about the state’s approach to testing small water systems, Daniel Newton, assistant deputy director of the water board’s Division of Drinking Water, wrote in an email that “we are testing any and all Public Water Systems that we feel are vulnerable and located adjacent to our areas of focus identified in our PFAS investigation.” Newton emphasized, however, how this approach is influenced by available lab capacity, “and accurate sampling and testing protocols.”

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Not just ubiquitous in the environment, PFAS are found with astonishing frequency in the human body, too. Federal tests have detected PFAS in the blood of nearly all participants, while a biomonitoring program in California found an even higher contamination rate among state residents. Last year, 425 people from Los Angeles County donated blood and urine to be tested for a variety of contaminants, including 12 separate PFAS variants. All study participants had a measurable level of one particular PFAS compound in their blood, while 99 and 98 percent of them had measurable levels of PFOA and PFOS, respectively, in their blood.

According to Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and an expert in environmental toxicology, the levels detected “look reasonable for a background population,” though the presence of industrial chemicals in the body “is always a concern.”

Our understanding of the possible health effects from exposure to PFAS continues to grow, but clinical studies already show that possible human health impacts from exposure to PFOS and PFOA include developmental impacts to fetuses during pregnancy or to breast-fed infants, testicular and kidney cancer, and liver, immune system and thyroid problems.

When it comes to other compounds in the PFAS family besides PFOA and PFOS, “What we do know is they raise some of the same health concerns,” says Laurel Schaider, a research scientist with the non-profit Silent Spring Institute environmental research group. And while other PFAS compounds are generally believed to leave the blood system faster than PFOS and PFOA, “They may be accumulating in other parts of our bodies,” she warned.

What steps can people take to limit exposure to these chemicals? The Silent Spring Institute found that those who frequently purchase their food from grocery stores and prepare home-cooked meals have lower PFAS levels in their systems, compared to people who are more apt to eat take-out and fast foods, the packaging for which commonly contains these chemicals.

As far as filtering drinking water, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some PFAS can be removed using a carbon filter, while other PFAS compounds require filtration through a more expensive reverse-osmosis system. More information can be found through the state water board here. Nevertheless, the sheer scale of the problem—PFAS compounds have even been found in East Greenland polar bears—has led some experts to call for the whole family of chemicals to be banned altogether.

“If something lasts forever, then we need to be sure it’s not toxic or harmful before we start releasing it, rather than after,” says Amy Kyle, a retired member of the faculty in Environmental Health Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. “To me, that seems to be the only tractable way to deal with these compounds.”

Southeastern Los Angeles Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a prominent voice on PFAS issues, hopes the high-profile Ruffalo-Hathaway film, Dark Waters, about a decades-long cover-up at the hands of PFAS manufacturer DuPont, will help further elevate the issue’s public profile.

“There’s been a lot more awareness in my community,” says Garcia of her mostly Latino district, adding that next year she intends to introduce a bill aimed towards funding the cleanup of these chemicals. “But I imagine this movie’s going to shift the public awareness and attention even more.”

Copyright Capital & Main

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