PFAS – What’s all the fuss about?

By: Van Burbach PhD, PG

Environmental Consultant

A class of chemicals referred to as PFAS has been in the news a lot recently, and many people have become both concerned and confused, so here is brief summary of what the fuss is all about and our current state of knowledge (or lack thereof) about these chemicals.

PFAS stands for “per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.” They are a class of man-made chemicals that were first developed in the 1940s – 1950s and have since been incorporated into numerous consumer products. PFAS can be found in:

  • Food packaging;
  • Non-stick cookware;
  • Water-repellent clothing;
  • Stain-resistant fabrics and carpets;
  • Some cosmetics; Firefighting foams;
  • and Most products that resist grease, water, and oil.

PFAS have become ubiquitous. PFAS have been detected in at least 66 public water supplies across the United States at levels above the EPA’s health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion. PFAS have been detected in the blood serum of 97% of Americans who have been tested.

PFAS’ basic chemical structure includes carbon-fluorine bonds, which are among the strongest chemical bonds in nature, so PFAS are extremely stable and do not naturally degrade in the environment or in our bodies. Some long-chain PFAS can degrade to shorter-chain PFAS, but they are still PFAS. This is why they have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” They are highly soluble and mobile in water, so they spread rapidly in our water supplies. They can also be carried as dust in the air, which allows them to spread even farther.

PFAS are also bioaccumulative, that is they tend to build up in animals and humans. They are proteinphilic, meaning they bind to proteins, so they can build up in crucial organs and tissues. Drinking water with PFAS in parts-per-trillion over time can result in parts-per-billion in your blood. Long-chain PFAS are generally more bioaccumulative than shorter-chain PFAS.

There are at least 4700 different chemicals that fall into the PFAS class, the large majority of which have never been studied with regards to their potential health effects. The analytical methods available to scientists can only detect and identify a few dozen of these chemicals. The most common and best understood PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). PFOS and PFOA have been phased out of products made in the United States over the last 10 years or so due to health concerns; however, they are still used in some other countries from which we import products. In many products, PFOS and PFOA have been replaced by other PFAS that are even less understood but likely present similar health risks. For example, the chemical GenX, which has been a huge problem for people in coastal North Carolina, is a PFAS which was developed as a substitute for PFOA in the manufacturing of non-stick coatings.

Studies of the effects of PFAS on rats and some (but not all) studies in humans have shown that certain PFAS may:

  • Affect growth,
  • learning, and behavior of infants and older children;
  • Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant;
  • Interfere with the body’s natural hormones;
  • Increase cholesterol levels;Affect the immune system;
  • and Increase the risk of cancer.

Children are especially at risk. PFAS can be passed from mother to child both in utero and while nursing. Studies of PFAS exposure and childhood health present consistent evidence for PFAS’ association with dyslipidemia, reduced immunity, reduced vaccine response, asthma, impaired renal function, and increased age at menarche.

A big part of the problem is that there is so much we don’t know, largely because we have only recently began studying these compounds. There is not yet enough data available to determine how severe the health impacts might be or to determine what levels are safe. Scientists all over the world and from many disciplines are actively studying PFAS, trying to learn more about the many unknown or poorly understood characteristics of these chemicals, including: human toxicity; pathways for impact to humans; fate and transport in the environment; and ways to treat, remediate, or remove PFAS from our water, air, and soil. In February 2019, the EPA issued a PFAS Action Plan; and in December 2019, the EPA issued Interim Recommendations for Addressing Groundwater Contaminated with PFOA and PFOS, which are steps in the right direction; however, much more is needed. Also, industry needs to invest heavily in developing safer alternatives in order to phase out the use of PFAS.

Here are some tips to help you protect yourself and your family:

  • Check your water supply. If you are connected to a municipal system, find out their testing results. If you are on a private well, ask your local health department about testing. While most home water filters will not remove all PFAS, they will remove some of them. Activated carbon or reverse osmosis systems are the best.
  • Check the source of your food, especially fish. Fish from rivers or lakes impacted by PFAS may have very high levels in their flesh. A great guide to safe seafood consumption can be found at Seafoodwatch.org.
  • Check food packaging. Fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn, and shiny paper or cardboard have been found to be sources of PFAS contamination.
  • Check out your cookware. Consider buying ceramic, glass, stainless steel, or cast-iron cookware instead on non-stick pans. If you use non-stick cookware, keep the temperature below 400 degrees. Dispose of scratched or flaked non-stick pans.
  • Check your clothing, carpeting, upholstery, etc. Products labeled stain- and water-resistant likely contain PFAS.
  • Check ingredients on cosmetics. Avoid cosmetics with PTFE or any word containing “perfluor” or “polyfluor” on their ingredients list.

Dr. Burbach brings a broad background in geology and geophysics to the table. He worked for over six years in the oil industry and for over 20 years in environmental project management. He has also served as a visiting research professor at North Carolina A&T State University. He has extensive experience in the development, planning and implementation of environmental assessment and remediation projects and hydrogeological and geophysical investigations.

Dr. Burbach has extensive experience in: hydrogeologic site investigation; environmental assessment of industrial sites, underground storage tank sites, and solid waste facilities; compliance monitoring; remediation of impacted soil and groundwater; and geophysical investigations. Including remediation of pesticides, metals, and hazardous waste.

Dr. Burbach has designed and implemented Corrective Action Plans involving groundwater pump and treat systems, air sparging, soil vapor recovery, soil venting, soil excavation, phytoremediation, aggressive fluid-vapor recovery, multi-phase extraction, ex-situ bioremediation, enhanced in-situ bioremediation, and monitored natural attenuation. Currently, Dr. Burbach oversees compliance monitoring of soil, groundwater, surface water, leachate, landfill gas, and treatment systems for several soil waste sites in Virginia and North Carolina.