What are PFAS Substances?
Polyfluoroalkyl and Per- Substances (PFAS) are a group of thousands of chemicals that have been used for various purposes since the 1940’s. Formerly consisting of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluoro-octane sulfonate acid (PFOS) as the primary components, PFAS are a man-made fluoropolymer that has been steadily gaining the attention of the environmental and public health fields due to its potentially harmful impacts on human health and environment. With the rising demand for the EPA to regulate and study these chemicals, states like New York continue to respond to the concerns.
PFAS were introduced by chemical manufacturer DuPont in 1946 during the rollout of a new non-stick cookware set coated with Teflon, a product that would result in the family of chemicals that we know today as PFAS. This miracle chemical was used in manufacturing of cleaning supplies, water-proof clothing, paints, shampoos, and many other practical applications because of its water, oil, heat, and stain resistant qualities. Today, PFAS have been coined as “forever chemicals” due to the resilience of the chemicals making it extremely difficult to break down in natural environments. In fact, PFAS has such a hard time breaking down that an estimated 97% of all Americans have varying quantities of the chemical in their blood, including newborn babies. The impact of PFAS is not limited to human health though, and researchers have identified PFAS contamination in drinking water, soils, and even wildlife with evidence of it found globally. Following the 2001 discovery of PFAS contamination in drinking water in the vicinity of a DuPont manufacturing plant which resulted in a class-action lawsuit, the long-term health effects of PFAS (including reproductive health, increased cholesterol, and various cancers) began to catch the eye of the public.
Addressing the Threat of PFAS
In order to address the long-term threat, the EPA has begun to study PFAS and its negative effects on human health and the environment. Unfortunately, there is still much to learn, such as more effective ways to detect the chemicals, removal of PFAS from the human body, soil, or groundwater, and how the health impacts will manifest over time. Luckily, the PFOA and PFOS components have been phased out of the manufacturing process of all Teflon-based products. Though PFAS are still being studied, there are few federal regulations in place to address current or ongoing contamination in many parts of the country, and while certain PFAS chemicals (such as PFOA and PFOS) have been phased out by manufacturing companies, new chemicals that replace the current ones may pose different long-term impacts that have not yet been discovered. Though federal agencies like the EPA and FDA do not have comprehensive action plans set in place to address PFAS, each has planned to provide enforceable regulations in the future. To date, the EPA has issued a lifetime health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (PPT) for long-term exposure to PFAS and its associated family of chemicals in drinking water.
Though PFAS regulations lack clear federal oversite, states across the country have taken steps to address the issue within their borders. In 2016, New York, Vermont, and New Hampshire joined together to urge further action by the EPA, which resulted in the EPA health advisory (mentioned above) in the same year. New York was also the first state in the nation to identify the PFOA component in PFAS as a hazardous substance, a distinction which would later result in PFOA being banned in manufacturing processes. In an effort to better address the growing reports of PFAS contamination throughout the state, New York initiated a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Department of Health (DOH) led team known as the Water Quality Rapid Response Team (WQRRT). The WQRRT attempts to sample private and public water wells to identify PFAS in potentially contaminated areas throughout the state. In 2017, New York governor Andrew Cuomo passed the Clean Water Act which provided additional support to sample areas of potentially high contamination and replace outdated infrastructure with newer systems that include built-in filtration and technology that will make it easier to identify the responsible party for contamination. Additionally, the Clean Water Act and the funds it provided allowed the DEC and DOH to create a database containing over 1,700 inactive solid waste sites that may be sources of PFAS contamination in drinking water. These efforts allow the state of New York to stay on top of PFAS contamination and address the affected areas quicker and more comprehensively. One great example of how these state-led efforts have positively impacted the residents of the state is the town of Hoosick, New York, which was identified as one of the areas of high contamination. The sampling and environmental assessments taken in the impacted areas resulted in a remedial action plan to provide clean, uncontaminated drinking water to the residents of Hoosick. Finally, the DEC published a PFAS testing guide in November of 2022, which contains guidance on testing, sampling, and safety protocols when handling PFAS in New York.
Avoiding risk of PFAS is difficult given the limited knowledge we have of the total impacted areas in the world, not to mention the various ways we have used PFAS in our day to day lives. In order to best assess your risk of PFAS or other contamination, engage with an environmental and Industrial Hygiene professional that is up to date on all state and federal regulations, and can offer quick, cost-conscious, and effective due diligence consulting. Educated environmental professionals and engineers that understand your business can offer a range of services, including steps to remediate PFAS and other contaminants that are specific to you and your needs.