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Concern Over the “Forever Chemical” PFAS Is High, But Remedies Remain Remote

Devon Burger
Jun 10 2020

Once prized as a key ingredient in fire retardant foam, non-stick pans and many everyday items, a synthetic chemical’s appearance in public water supply wells raises questions of how to protect the public from unknown health hazards.

Main Street in downtown Pleasanton, California

A Small-Town Feeling Between the Bay and the Central Valley Main Street in downtown Pleasanton, California.   Michael C. Berch via Wikimedia Commons

By Devon Burger

Front cover of brochure distributed by city of Pleasanton.

Front cover of brochure distributed by city of Pleasanton.  

The first flyer arrived at each house in early fall. Another came in November. The message they delivered was alarming: the residents of Pleasanton, California had been relying on contaminated water sources.

What they didn’t say was where the contamination had come from. Or how exactly the city planned on handling the contamination in the long term.

Pleasanton, located in the East Bay about 25 miles east of Oakland and six miles west of Livermore, is home to an estimated 80,000 residents, nearly a quarter of them under 18. It is one of many towns around the country facing a newly recognized problem: PFAS.

PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals found in many ordinary items, from non-stick pans to dental floss to microwave popcorn bags. These chemicals have been in use since the 1940s, but much about them remains unknown. They have strong carbon bonds, making them persistent in the environment and in the human body—they are also known as “forever chemicals.”

A New “Forever Chemical” Known to Be Bad. But How Bad?

These substances are the latest entry into the directory of toxic industrial chemicals that have made their way into people’s bodies over the last several decades. Their predecessors include lead, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and chromium 6, the focus of the 2000 “Erin Brockovich” movie. But PFAS pose an unusual challenge the predecessors did not.

“Other kinds of contaminants that have come along were known problems well before they were discovered in areas where they presented a threat to public health,” said Philip Angell, who spent much of his career working at top levels at the Environmental Protection Agency. When asbestos was found in schools in the 1980s, Congress acted quickly because the risks were clear.

But newer chemicals pose a different problem. Many of the PFAS contaminating wells like Pleasanton’s were created in the mid-20th century, when chemical marvels were hailed as signs of progress. From 1935 to 1982, the advertising tagline of DuPont, the giant chemical company, was “Better Things For Better Living… Through Chemistry.” PFAS-containing Teflon, invented by a DuPont chemist, was heavily marketed as a nonstick surface for cooking pots.

Even as more information on PFAS is available every day, basic questions remain unanswered. In Pleasanton, the source of contamination is unclear. Nor are all effects of PFAS known, though some are shown in the 2019 film “Dark Water.” And associated cleanup costs are anyone’s guess. One European study estimates the price tag — including environmental screening, contamination monitoring, and water treatment — to be anywhere between 821 million and 170.8 billion Euros ($927 million to $193 billion).

Lawsuits produced evidence that DuPont knew in 1979 that small doses of one kind of PFAS, known as perfluoroctanoic acid, or PFOA, could harm lab animals; the company had reason to suspect potential dangers from PFAS long before the public did. So did 3M, another big firm. “The chemical industry had [studies] showing health effects long before they were shared with the EPA or the scientific communities,” explained Anna Reade, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Now we’re playing catch up. “That gap comes from not being told by industry that they were seeing these health effects. Or even just that they were finding PFAS in every blood sample they looked at way, way back in the day.”

So these chemicals have been in the environment for decades with little publicly known about the associated risks. Even now their precise health impact on humans remains unclear. Because scientists can’t directly test humans, they have to turn to animals. Some animal studies have linked PFAS to health effects including changes in liver function and altered hormone levels. However troubling, the studies do not conclusively show the impact of PFAS on people.

But there is little argument that PFAS are harmful, even if the specifics of why and how remain a mystery. Definitively proving causation can take a long time. “For some people, that’s not acceptable. We find a chemical, it looks like it can have an impact on health, why are we waiting?” said Angell.

The overall weight of evidence is clear and, according to Reade, “provides enough for [agencies] to say they have a list of different health effects they’re pretty confident are associated with exposure to PFAS chemicals. So that’s about as good as we can get.”

While Questions Remain, Evidence Suggests Limiting Human Exposure

Even with uncertainty, there are ways forward. A community member recently told Reade that their doctor suggested they act like they’re immunocompromised during COVID-19. Though not diagnosed as immunocompromised, Reade’s acquaintance has high levels of PFAS, which are associated with immunosuppression. “Knowing somebody’s exposed isn’t necessarily going to give you a perfect answer on what to do next,” said Reade, “but it gives you more information on how to be proactive with your health.”

Pleasanton has a similar philosophy. “We’ve actually taken a real proactive approach,” said Kathleen Yurchak, the Director of Operations and Water Utilities for Pleasanton. After finding the contamination, Pleasanton sent flyers by mail, emailed customers directly, included information on utility bills, and discussed it at a city council meeting in November.

The two most contaminated wells both contained PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—two of the most widely studied PFAS. With combined PFOA and PFOS levels of over 100 parts per trillion, both wells were quickly designated last priority: they will only be operated when necessary. The town hired a consultant to identify treatment options and their cost.


Graphic illustrating parts per trillion using a drop of water in 20 Olympic swimming pools
City of Pleasanton

The discovery in Pleasanton highlights one of the major challenges of these chemicals: they are everywhere, even more so than asbestos or lead ever were. As PFAS testing improves and becomes standard, more towns are finding that their water is contaminated. “If you look for PFAS—and you look for more of them at lower levels that are still toxic to people and to the environment—you’re going to find them. That’s the sad part about these chemicals,” said Andria Ventura, the Toxics Program Manager for the California chapter of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group.

That’s what happened in Pleasanton. In March 2019, the California State Water Board initiated Phase 1 of its PFAS investigation. The State Water Board sent investigation orders to airports, landfills, and military bases—all common PFAS sources—and sampled over 600 water systems. As of March 2020, these chemicals have been detected in roughly 50 percent of sampled wells. Eleven such wells supply drinking water to Pleasanton; contamination in three exceeds California’s response level.

The State Water Board announced stricter response levels for PFAS in February 2020. Now just 10 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFOA and 40 ppt of PFOS are enough to spark action. One part per trillion is a miniscule amount—the equivalent of one drop of water in 20 Olympic sized pools. ”When you’re talking about a substance that’s being measured in parts per trillion, that doesn’t say to me, ‘Oh, this isn’t much of a problem.’ That says to me it’s much more toxic than even something we know, like lead,” said Jill Buck, an environmental activist and Pleasanton resident.

If concentrations of PFAS in a water system exceed these levels, it must take the water source out of service, provide treatment, or notify customers in writing. The water system must also communicate the test results to the public. Pleasanton did just that—even before the new law was passed. “To preempt that [legislation] the city has actually done communication in advance of the requirement,” said Yurchak.

An Unwanted Presence in the Water Supply

The approximately 80,000 residents of Pleasanton in Alameda County get their water from two suppliers. Both of them had wells with detectable levels of PFAS chemicals in 2019. The city, which supplies a quarter of public supply, stopped using their most contaminated groundwater well; the Zone 7 Water Agency, which supplies the remainder, used water from the state aqueduct system to dilute supply from its most contaminated groundwater wells and reduce levels below the state threshold.

Map of Pleasanton, California, showing elevated PFAS test results in several groundwater wells for public supply.

Map of Pleasanton, California, showing elevated PFAS test results in several groundwater wells for public supply. Click to enlarge.

Combatting a chemical like PFAS can be expensive and disruptive, according to Angell. “We don’t know at what level it’s a problem, and we don’t know what it takes to eliminate that risk.” The costs of dealing with PFAS are largely unknown, but likely to be beyond what a municipality like Pleasanton can afford. “We are looking to our state and federal officials to help us solve this problem and also look for funding,” said Yurchak. “Having to deal with this is going to be a costly endeavor.”

Pleasanton residents are worried about cost as well. “I don’t think it’s fair that taxpayers have to pay to clean up somebody else’s mess,” said Buck. “We can spend millions of taxpayer dollars to treat the water, but if we don’t cut off the source, we will continue to clean up somebody else’s mess and we will pay for it.”


Arroyo Mocho in Pleasanton, near one of the Zone 7 groundwater wells.
Arroyo Mocho in Pleasanton, near one of the Zone 7 groundwater wells. Steven Miller via Flickr

But what is the source? That’s still unclear. More questions than answers seem to come out of studying PFAS in Pleasanton, including what to do when the source is impossible to trace. “We are not finding much of a pattern,” said Valerie Pryor, the General Manager for Zone 7 Water Agency, a utility service from which Pleasanton receives some of its water.

Some are speculating that the contamination might originate at Camp Parks military facility, or at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, both nearby. But Pryor is less sure. “Maybe some from a landfill, maybe some from the airport, maybe some from people doing laundry of their water repellent clothes… I doubt that we’re going to find one or two organizations to go after.”

No single agency seems to be able to address these challenges alone. In Pleasanton, the city itself is focused on immediate management and future planning. By shutting down highly contaminated wells and hiring water consultants, city officials are doing what they can, but they do not have the capacity to search for the source. Zone 7 is working with the state to follow sampling plans and regulations.

State Water Board maps show testing sites across California, many of which have revealed PFAS contamination. Across the country, PFAS have become a national problem — enough so that Congress is taking action.

A Nationwide Catalog of PFAS Contamination

The Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research organization, maintains a map of PFAS contamination sites in the United States. It documents pollution in public water systems and military bases, airports, industrial plants, landfills, and firefighter training sites. The data comes from public sources and is updated regularly. Click the image to view the interactive map at EWG.org.

Map: PFAS contamination in the United States

Source: Environmental Working Group; map image used by permission.

Congress Works to Add Superfund Coverage for PFAS Cleanup

One bill in Congress, H.R. 535 or the PFAS Action Act of 2019, passed the House of Representatives in January and has been sent to the Senate. “This legislation is a response to try to make sure that we are helping communities not only limit their exposure to PFAS, but also help them to clean up the contamination that they’re seeing in their communities,” according to a statement from the office of Representative John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat.

This bill would require that PFAS be covered by Superfund, a law that empowers the Environmental Protection Agency to respond to pollutants endangering public health or the environment. The Superfund law can ensure the cleanup of sites where no one is identifiably responsible. This could be crucial when dealing with PFAS—though there have been PFAS found at existing Superfund sites, how the EPA will deal with those cleanups  is not entirely clear The measure would also require the EPA to inform communities of public health risks and of contaminant sources, if known.

There has never been a class of chemicals about which so little is known, according to Angell. Since the creation of the EPA in 1970 and the passing of the Toxic Substances Control Act in 1976, chemical regulation has improved slightly, though existing chemicals—including PFAS—were grandfathered in. “We know more before a new chemical is introduced into commerce... but don’t know everything,” said Angell.

How do we find out the rest? “It’s up to regulators and scientists and academia to play catch up and figure it out,” said Reade.

 

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Edited by Felicity Barringer.

 

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The Interior Department Effort to Relocate Jobs to Colorado Prompted a Mass Exodus; some 41 of 328 employes slated to move to Grand Junction, Colorado actually made the move; the rest left the agency. The Bureau of Land Management’s loss of so many longtime career employes – only 60 jobs were left in place in the Washington office -- is an example of the Trump Administration’s success the federal government. Washington Post

An Exploration of the Reasons to Cherish Microbiotic Soils. Fungi, lichen, cyanobacteria, algae, and other tiny organisms live in just the top few millimeters of soil; these crusts are critical to the health of the desert, and can be damaged repeated trampling by people, cattle, or off-road vehicles. Sierra Club

Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired; conservationists are urging the Biden administration to remove sections of the barrier that cut across critical habitats, block migration corridors, and damage watersheds. The coalition opposing the wall has identified specific problematic sections to be potentially removed. Scientific American

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Two Corridors in the West: California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta. New research finds that more than 82 million birds pass through these regions during spring migration, with tree swallows concentrating in the Colorado delta and Anna’s hummingbirds in the Central Valley. This data helps define critical habitats for western birds, with up to 80 percent of some species’ populations passing through the two areas. Yale Environment 360

The Navajo Generating Station, a Major Employer and a Major Polluter on Navajo Land, has Been Demolished after Navajo and Hopi community members fought for years to close the facility. Now, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining steps for community restoration, such as securing electricity and clean water access for residents, as well as job training. Center For Health, Environment And Justice

Articles Worth Reading: January 19, 2020

A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

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