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PFAS: A Primer on “Forever Chemicals” and their Ecological Impact

by Amber Sparks

Per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) represent a complex class of chemical compounds that have been used in the manufacturing of household and commercial products since the 1960s. At the time, PFAS were revolutionary — a compound that could resist heat and chemical reactions, while also repelling oil, stains, grease, and water. The military, firefighting, aerospace, automotive, construction, and electronic industries were all on board. Before long PFAS were incorporated into a variety of products ranging from firefighting foam to commonly used items such as Teflon cookware, fast-food packaging, clothing, carpets, furniture, and cosmetics.

Although once a ground-breaking innovation, today we understand that PFAS are deleterious to human health and the environment, and the longer-chain sub-compound PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) and PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) are even more toxic, subject to bioaccumulation and persistence in the environment. Even at low levels, PFAS have been linked to cancer of the kidneys and testicles, thyroid and liver disease, decreased fertility, harm to developing fetuses and young children, and overall weakened immune systems.

While the scientific community had begun to identify these impacts years ago, it wasn’t until 2016 when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a PFAS health advisory for drinking water that the PFAS compounds truly emerged as a contaminant of serious concern at both federal and state-levels. The 2016 health advisory set the combined exposure level for both PFOS and PFOA at 70 parts per trillion. While the EPA deemed this recommendation sufficient to protect human health, in 2018 the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) published a study that found exposure to drinking water contaminated with PFOS and PFOA could be harmful at levels up to 10 times lower than previously estimated by the EPA.

With the release of the ATSDR study, concerns surrounding PFAS contamination quickly elevated making headlines in the New York Times, Fox News, and many others. Yet despite public response for more stringent regulations, there continues to be many overarching challenges regarding PFAS contamination management. First and foremost, because PFAS have become ubiquitous in the environment, it is extremely difficult to identify sources, pathways, exposed populations, and levels of exposure and it’s likely that other unknown and undiscovered PFAS exist within the environment as impurities or byproducts of chemical production. Additionally, while health and occurrence data and validated analytical methods are available for certain PFAS (i.e. PFOA and PFOS), there are potentially hundreds of other PFAS with limited or no toxicity information.

In response to these data gaps, the EPA has positioned to take serious action on PFAS (see 2018 National Leadership Summit and EPA’s 2019 PFAS Action Plan), and several states have begun implementing measures of their own. While these new developments will hopefully prevent the spread of PFAS contamination, they may also create potential liabilities and consequences for industries that previously or currently manufacture, use, or sell PFAS or PFAS-containing products. At this juncture, where environment and industry intersect, Great Ecology steps up to the plate, with an understanding of the cutting-edge issues and regulations, providing ecologically focused solutions for areas that have been subject to PFAS contamination.

Great Ecology offers services in natural resource management, including NRD assessments and reporting, expert witness testimony, habitat restoration planning and cost estimation, and litigation strategy, all while maintaining strict confidentiality. The scale of our NRD work has ranged from confined sites with PFAS specific injuries, to regional projects encompassing hundreds of square miles and thousands of groundwater, surface water, soil and sediment samples. We bring rigorous scientific studies and extensive knowledge to substantiate injury to natural resource and reductions in the ecosystem services they provide, which can stand up in a court of law – to protect critical natural resources while maintaining the interests of our clients.

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