By : Lauren Maranto

The analysis of water quality is a critical to both the environment and our daily lives. Water quality is often measured by the presence or lack of metals, toxins, and nutrients, and allows us to determine how these levels may affect human health. Although in the past we have focused on these determinants of water quality, recent attention has been brought to a chemical group called Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their effect on human health.

According to the EPA, PFAS are a group of chemicals that include PFOS and GenX, among many others. These are a cause for concern not only for their prevalence in our daily lives, but also because they are highly persistent in the environment and in the human body, meaning that they do not break down and will therefore continue to accumulate over time.

PFAS have been used all over the globe, in products including cookware, stain repellents, and fire retardant foams. According to the EPA guide on PFAS, they can be found in things such as household products, waste from production facilities, and living organisms (including fish, animals, and humans). They can even be found in food due to contaminated packaging and processing, or in our drinking water.

Due to their persistence in the environment, PFAS are more likely to leach and spread through environmental processes, allowing them to leach into the water and affect areas further from the source. This has been a common occurrence with the use of fire retardant foams, which release PFAS that are then carried into streams and lakes through runoff, contaminating the water. It also leaches into the soil, which can contaminate crops. Therefore, people can be exposed to low levels of PFAS through exposure to contaminated water, soil, food packaging, and equipment used in manufacturing, according to the EPA. More direct exposure may also occur in an industrial facility that produces PFAS or at any large site that uses firefighting foams.

According to a recent report by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an organization dedicated to the implementation of strong chemical policy, approximately 110 million people in 39 states are exposed to drinking water that has been contaminated by PFAS. Studies have linked exposure to some PFAS to adverse health effects, including elevated cholesterol levels, weakened immune system, cancer, decreased infant birth weights, and thyroid hormone disruption. This is a serious, widespread issue that will not go away on its own, and action must be taken to clean up these communities.

However, the communities that have been affected by PFAS are taking initiative, spreading support and awareness for this issue. Toxic Action Center has worked with community leaders in these areas to form the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, a group that works with community groups to share their stories, information, and strategies to spread awareness and reduce the presence of PFAS. For more information on the coalition’s work, contact Shaina Kasper, Vermont State Director and New Hampshire Community organizer, at shaina@toxicsaction.org. In addition, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has worked with Congress to pass a provision allowing the commercial use of PFAS-free firefighting foam, and are now working on implementing these in locations across the world. For more information on their work to clean up drinking water, visit the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families report.

Although this issue is being addressed, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of the continued clean up and monitoring of PFAS. However, we are optimistic that the increased awareness and understanding of this chemical hazard will allow for better regulation of PFAS in the future.