Read the full article by Samuel Blackstone
“A federal health organization was set to publish a study earlier this year that would cast serious doubt on levels of per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) the Environmental Protection Agency deems safe in drinking water.
But the report’s release was stymied by EPA and White House officials over concerns that it would create, according to emails from a Trump administration aide, a ‘public relations nightmare.’…
That controversy wasn’t novel to the debate surrounding PFAS. Rather, it was indicative of the system that has created today’s situation…
In 2009, the EPA set its first lifetime health-advisory level for two PFAS: pefluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). The level — 400 parts per trillion (ppt) or about 20 drops of water in an Olympic sized pool — was an assurance that humans could expect no adverse health effects from consuming water with such concentrations over the course of their lifetimes.
Seven years later, the assurance dropped to 70 ppt. Today, that level serves as a red line declaring water as safe when below the level and dangerous when above. It also determines if the DOD supplies long-term drinking water to affected homes, which typically only occurs when a home’s water source tests above the level.
Such advisory levels, while helpful as a reference point, are non-regulatory and non-enforceable, which means they do little to hold polluters accountable. Federal drinking-water standards, on the other hand, are enforceable. With a PFAS standard, the EPA can require liable parties to pay for the contamination’s investigation, cleanup and future long-term costs like providing alternative water sources. But no such standard exists today.
In its absence, some states have begun to take regulatory matters into their own hands. South Dakota, however, is not among those states and has no plans to set standards. As a result, the state cannot require public water systems to routinely monitor for PFAS.
Brian Walsh, an environmental scientist manager with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), said the state still has the power to force polluters to cleanup contamination when it pollutes groundwater or poses a threat to public health. Still, the DENR would like to see a federal EPA standard…
‘In the last five to seven years … it’s really just a flurry of recognition,’ said Savitz, who chairs a state-funded team launched in Michigan in 2017 to combat the state’s PFAS crisis, where over 30 PFAS contamination sites have been identified. Different levels between the EPA, ATSDR and states are not surprising, Savitz said…
Part of the discrepancy is timing. The ATSDR report used new research on PFAS’s effects on the immune system, information that was unavailable to the EPA when it set its level in 2016. The ATSDR report also relied more on human studies; the EPA leaned on animal studies.
‘These are just very approximate, these estimates,’ Savitz said. ‘They’re all highly speculative, and I think that’s just going to remain that way.’
Other scientists see more cause for alarm.
‘The significance of the conflict between the ATSDR’s minimal risk level and the EPA’s health advisory is that yet another group of scientists have looked at the evidence and decided that the EPA levels are too high to protect public health,’ David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist for the Environmental Working Group, said in a news release…
Part of the problem isn’t the EPA but the laws. To suspend or reject a manufacturer’s chemical because of potential risk, the burden of proof is on the EPA. Elsewhere, like in the European Union, manufacturers carry that burden.
‘The industry is a little backwards,’ Meyer said of America’s regulations for chemical manufacturing. ‘These AFFF (firefighting foam) compounds have been banned, but there’s other replacement compounds that are being used instead.’
The replacements highlight another problem with EPA laws. Because the EPA must assess chemicals individually, rather than as a family, no one is quite sure how many PFAS there are. One study found between 500 and 700 different PFAS compounds at sites where firefighting foam was used. Toxicity questions abound.
The unknown number of PFAS isn’t an accident.
A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found about 95 percent of pre-manufacture notices sent to the EPA didn’t include information as basic as the chemical’s name and structure, making it nearly impossible to track.
For over 100 new PFAS notices reviewed by the Environmental Working Group where the chemical posed a risk to human health and/or the environment, more than 85 percent didn’t include the chemical’s name and more than 55 percent didn’t disclose the manufacturer…
In August 2016, the Air Force spent $6.2 million on new firefighting foam without PFOA/PFOS. At Ellsworth and Sioux Falls Regional Airport, the installation is nearly complete.
The new foam still contains PFAS, but with a shorter six carbon-chain. Also known as C6 — the old PFOA/PFOS-laden foam had an eight-carbon chain, called C8 — manufacturers claim the health effects are mitigated because C6 breaks down faster in the human body.
According to a 2011 document from the European Food Safety Authority, the half-life of a six carbon-chain PFAS replacement made by 3M was between 12 and 34 days in the bodies of three workers. C8’s half life in the human body can be up to four years…
The reduced persistence in humans doesn’t translate to the environment, though. In a DuPont report submitted to the EPA in 2010 for one of its C6 chemicals, ‘the biodegradation of the test substance was 0%.’
Critics question the importance of reduced half-lives when people are continuously exposed. They also point to health studies showing similar health effects from C6 and C8 exposure. Savitz admitted as much.”