What are PFAS?
PFAS, poly and perfluoroalkyl substances, are a complex group of man-made, organic chemicals. Several of these fluorinated compounds are being found at concerning levels in the environment. PFAS have several unique characteristics including their ability to repel oil and water on surfaces. This and other extensive applications have centered them in many industries that produce consumer goods for the past 70 years. With such wide use in a variety of industries and the products they produce, many have been exposed to these compounds.
Why Test for PFAS?
The carbon-fluoride bond in PFAS is one of the strongest bonds making the compounds extremely difficult to breakdown or denature. This leads to PFAS bio-accumulating and bio-magnifying in the ecosystem, as well as having a half life of anywhere between 2 and 9 years in the human body. The EPA has set a lifetime health advisory for all PFOA and PFOS at 70ppt combined. High concentrations of PFAS in blood has been linked to many adverse health concerns such as: low infant birth rate, reproductive cancers, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and hormone disruption. Testing wastewater and drinking water provides answers and awareness for members of the community so they may take proper action to avoid further exposure to PFAS.
PFAS can come from a variety of sources, both directly and indirectly. Examples include manufacturing companies that either release the chemical waste into the environment during production, or directly into the products to be used as a surfactant. You may also come into contact with PFCs through AFFF (Aqueous film forming foam) used to fight fires, from leachate at landfills, or stain repellent fabric protectors. PFAS can also be found in food packaging, nonstick cookware, clothing made to be waterproof, and types of carpet.
Sources of PFAS
How Much is too Much?
The EPA sets the lifetime exposure limit to PFOA and PFOS at 70ppt total in the human body, as mentioned above. To put that in perspective, 1ppt is like traveling 6 inches out of the 93 million-mile journey to the sun, and 70ppt is comparable to one grain of sand in an Olympic sized swimming pool. With such a low lifetime exposure limit and PFAS having a halflife of 2 to 9 years in the human body it’s important to be aware of potential sources of exposure.
PFAS Concerns in the United States
Based on current data, Michigan leads among the three most affected states in the U.S. for PFAS contamination, ahead of California and New Jersey. However, the problem remains a national concern, with virtually no state unimpacted. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that most people in the U.S. have at least trace amounts of PFAS in their blood, although the overall amount has gone down significantly since the problem was first recognized and measures are taken to reduce PFAS containing products.
An interactive map of PFAS contamination sites in the United States can be found here, constructed by the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University in partnership with the Environmental Working Group.
PFAS Concerns for Michigan
As of 2017, testing in Belmont, Michigan found levels of PFAS as high as 76,000ppt due to waste mismanagement coming from the Wolverine World Wide tannery. The discovery led to contamination concerns in local water, even resulting in advisories for certain regions discouraging fish and game consumption.
Mandatory testing that followed between 2013 and 2015 disclosed PFAS levels for areas found to be within predefined reporting levels. Those regions with under 10ppt of PFAS detected in drinking water were not mandated to release contamination data. Because the maximum set by the EPA for lifetime exposure remains controversial, some regions might not be deemed reportable by one metric, but still be considered dangerous by another.
For example, there is a significant disparity between danger thresholds mandated by the EPA and those suggested by the CDC's federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The ATSDR would place lifetime limits closer to 7ppt, less than the EPA by a magnitude of ten, making self-advocacy and up to date information on limits important tools in managing exposure risk.
What Can Be Done?
The CDC reports