According to a new study, toxic PFAS have likely contaminated about 57,412 sites in the United States.
These sites include certain industrial facilities, waste treatment facilities, and places where fire-fighting foam containing PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) has been used, such as airports and military bases.
The study, published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, found probable sites of PFAS contamination in all 50 states. This is the first study to use existing scientific data on PFAS contamination to create a model that can predict where contamination is likely.
“PFAS contamination at these sites is not only possible, but likely,” Alissa Cordner, lead author of the paper and co-director of the PFAS Project Lab, said EHN. “PFAS testing is extremely expensive and requires a lot of time and technical capacity…One of our big goals is to help decision-makers prioritize testing and corrective action at these locations based on this high probability of contamination.”
Related: What are PFAS?
PFAS do not break down naturally, so they persist in the environment and the human body. Exposure is linked to health problems including kidney and testicular cancer, liver and thyroid problems, reproductive problems, reduced effectiveness of vaccines in children, and increased risk of birth defects, among others.
The chemicals have been found in drinking water systems across the United States, in the bodies of humans and animals around the world, in plants and crops, and even in rainwater at levels too high for safe consumption.
Chemical research has increased in recent years, but due to a lack of federal testing requirements, we lack critical data on the magnitude, scope, and severity of PFAS releases and the infection in the United States.
The new study helps to fill this gap and also provides a map suspected contaminated sites. The researchers reviewed 11 existing studies and regulatory listings that clearly linked PFAS contamination levels to specific types of facilities, then referenced national databases to map the location of similar sites across the country.
To ensure its accuracy, the researchers compared the results of their model to their existing map of known contamination sites based on published PFAS test data, and found that approximately 70% of known contamination sites were captured by the model. The remaining 30% of sites were locations where PFAS were found by testing them at locations where they would not be expected by the model.
“This model is likely an underestimate of contaminated sites,” Cordner said. “For example, we know that places where sludge has been applied to farmland and places where fire-fighting foam has been used during training exercises are susceptible to contamination, but there are there are no federal databases of these sites, so they are not included here.
Lack of regulation
In 2021, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established a road map to new regulations for PFAS, including regulating chemicals in drinking water, but many health advocates and scientists who study the chemicals believe the agency is moving too slowly.
Waiting, some states began to regulate chemicals, but this has led to a patchwork of protections.
“There is definitely a need for a federal [drinking water limit] on PFAS that protect public health,” Cordner said. “In the meantime, we would like to see this research used widely by local, city and state decision makers to prioritize testing sites and public health interventions.”
PFAS in Pennsylvania
The report identified about 2,100 suspected PFAS contaminated sites in Pennsylvania, according to Cordner, placing the state 10th nationally for the number of suspected contaminated sites. California was the top state with about 7,200 sites, according to Cordner.
In contrast, only 10 locations in Pennsylvania appear on the map of the Known Contamination Sites Report.
Suspected PFAS contaminated sites in Pennsylvania.
Credit: PFAS Project Lab
Known sites contaminated with PFAS in Pennsylvania.
Credit: PFAS Project Lab
From 2019 to 2021, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted statewide PFAS sampling that found one in three watering systems exceed EPA recommended health thresholds for PFAS.
Related: How toxic PFAS chemicals could end up in food from Pennsylvania farms
The DEP has been working to set drinking water limits for PFAS in the state since at least 2017. This process is expected to be completed in 2023.
Meanwhile, the EPA’s recommended health thresholds for the two most common and dangerous PFASs, PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonic acid), were significantly lowered earlier this year, placing Pennsylvania’s proposed limits on these chemicals hundreds of times above the recommended values. health thresholds.
“EPA’s interim health advisory limits are so low that they essentially say that almost any exposure to these chemicals is likely to be hazardous to human health,” Cordner said.
She also noted that PFOA and PFOS are just two of a class of over 12,000 similar chemicals, and called on regulators to move away from regulating them one at a time and instead regulating them as class.
“We must stop all non-essential use of these chemicals in industrial processes, commercial products and fire-fighting foam to prevent these harmful exposures.”
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