Backyard Talk

The New Lead – Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs)

It’s bad enough that lead is making headlines everywhere, but now a new group of chemicals is showing up in drinking water across the country – in Portsmouth, NH, Hoosick falls, NY, Scottsdale, AZ, Colorado Springs, CO, Decatur, AL, Bucks County, PA, Cape Cod, MA to name a few places. These chemicals are called perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs and they first generated headlines in the 1990s when they contaminated the drinking water for 70,000 people of Parkersburg, WV where a DuPont plant made teflon and related products for decades. Exposure to these chemicals is linked to developmental delays in children, decreased fertility, increased cholesterol, changes in the immune system, and cancer (prostate, kidney and testicular).
PFCs are quickly becoming the “hot” chemical to look for in drinking water as it seems to be showing up everywhere including places such as the Pease International Tradeport Business and Industrial Center in Portsmouth, NH. In the summer of 2014, the City of Portsmouth reported that two unusual chemicals were found in all three wells that serve the business center as well as the NH Air National Guard Base on the site of the old Pease Air Force Base. The concentration of one of these chemicals – perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) – exceeded the USEPA Provisional Health Advisory (PHA) causing the city to immediately shut down the well. PFOS and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are part of the class of chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds, and they are starting to show up in drinking water wells throughout the country.
PFCs are common in many consumer products, including teflon pans, fabric protectors, pizza boxes and ski wax and it is used to make carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture. They are also used to fight fires and in a number of industrial processes. At the Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, the water became contaminated when firefighters practiced putting out fires on abandoned portions of the airbase using firefighting foams that contained PFCs.
PFOA and PFOS contamination in drinking water is thought to stem from two main sources: factories that formerly manufactured or used the chemicals, and locations, including military bases, where they were used in firefighting foams. According to the EPA, both PFOA and PFOS are found at very low levels in the blood of the general population across the U.S.
Although no one lives at the Tradeport Center, more than 10,000 people work there and there are two day care centers. The people who use the daycare centers immediately formed a Facebook page called “Testing for Pease” and began asking for blood testing for the children. Soon more than 500 adults and children had their blood tested for PFCs and many had levels that were higher than the general population. More blood testing is now underway as the community struggles to make sense of the results and what it means for their future. The health effects of PFCs are not well understood but studies in communities with similar exposures found associations with kidney cancer and testicular cancer. Other concerns includes high cholesterol, immune damage and possible reproductive effects.
In May of this year, the EPA finalized its Health Advisory for PFOA and PFOS lowing its advisory value from 400 and 200 respectively to 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for both compounds combined. This level was based on a lifetime exposure to total PFCs. This change followed criticism from researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health that the original PHA was not adequately protective of the public.  This health advisory is based on long term exposure to PFOA and PFOS in drinking water.
CHEJ has prepared fact sheets on the toxicity of these chemicals and on the how to interpret blood levels. Both were prepared as part of our work with the local residents in Portsmouth, NH.
Don’t hesitate to contact us if you have any questions about PFCs including how to interpret test results.