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Attending the 3rd National PFAS Conference at Wilmington, NC

Photo credit: NC State University.

By Jose Aguayo.

CHEJ attended the 3rd National PFAS Conference in Wilmington, NC this past week. The conference was hosted by the North Carolina State University Center for Environmental and Health Effects of PFAS in conjunction with the Cape Fear Community College and funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. In attendance were environmental research and advocacy organizations, state and federal agencies, several universities, and representatives of affected communities and tribes. The city of Wilmington was chosen as the venue due to the serious PFAS contamination in the nearby Cape Fear River.

The conference touched upon every aspect of the nationwide (and global) problem of PFAS toxicity and accumulation in the environment and within our bodies. If you need a refresher on PFAS chemicals and the problems they pose to our health, you can catch up here. Researchers from universities here and abroad talked about the new and emerging discoveries of how PFAS impacts our health. For example, it was established that common PFAS compounds such as PFOA and PFOS have very significant associations with kidney cancer, hormone disruption, and immune system suppression. Researchers also emphasized that although we know how a handful of commonly used PFAS affect our health, we know next to nothing about the thousands of other PFAS compounds that make up the majority of PFAS emissions.

Another important aspect explored at the conference was the need for proper treatment or destruction technologies since conventional forms of disposal do not work. Treatment for contaminated drinking water includes the use of reverse osmosis systems, activated carbon filtration, and the use of filtration membranes. Although these treatments show promise, each has drawbacks that remain to be addressed. Among the destruction technologies, those that seek to break the carbon-fluoride bond of the PFAS compounds, a promising one being evaluated by the USEPA is called “supercritical water oxidation.” It is a complex process, but it boils down to heating contaminated water to very high temperatures under great pressure to reach a plasma state of matter. At this stage, PFAS and other contaminants are breakdown and recombine into inert chemicals upon cooling. Again, although promising, there are still some kinks that need to be worked out.

Finally, the conference convened a panel on PFAS disposal. CHEJ participated in this panel and gave a presentation on how landfills are not proper disposal locations for PFAS compounds. This is because landfills are not closed systems. In fact, even a brand-new landfill will leak about 36,500 gallons of contaminated water every year! Couple that with the fact that certain landfills can develop cracks in their bottom liners in less than 5 years, and you have a gradual accumulation of PFAS within the surrounding environment. Any community surrounding the landfill will then be slowly poisoned by these compounds as they leak into the groundwater, drinking water, and even the surrounding air.

(To learn more about landfills, view our landfills publication here.)

The EPA also made a noteworthy announcement at this conference. On June 15, the first day of the conference, the agency released updated interim drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS, and final health advisories for PFBS and HFPO/GenX. These health advisories are several orders of magnitude smaller than the previous ones in place for PFOA and PFOS, and quite small for the newly promulgated PFBS and HFPO/GenX. For PFOA and PFOS specifically, the values are 0.004 and 0.02 parts per trillion (ppt) – numbers that are minuscule and barely above the detection limits of analytical chemistry. In English, this means that values of detection will be so close to zero that the mere presence of a chemical could garner recognition for remediation by the agency. This new measure will undoubtedly protect people’s health from these chemicals. Now, although this is a praiseworthy move by the EPA, these health advisories are not maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) – EPA’s enforceable drinking water standards; they are only guidelines. As such, water utilities and other water treatment entities may choose not to follow them, and the EPA can do nothing to force their hand. That is the next step the EPA needs to take: to make these PFAS health advisories into fully fledged MCLs.

All in all, the 3rd National PFAS Conference was a productive forum for researchers, advocators, and impacted communities to have a voice and move the discussion forward. It was a testament to how well we can all tackle a problem to our collective health, but also a stark reminder of how much more work is needed because polluters have been manufacturing these harmful chemicals for nearly 70 years and continue to do so.

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The Environmental Health Movement Loses Ethics Leader: Sheldon Krimsky

Photo credit: Tufts University.

By Stephen Lester.

Dr. Sheldon (“Shelly”) Krimsky, internationally esteemed scholar, and pioneer in environmental ethics, passed away unexpectedly in Cambridge, MA, April 23rd, 2022. He was 80. His probing work investigated the connections between science, ethics, and biotechnology, and the pernicious role chemicals play in the environment. A truly adored professor at Tufts University for 47 years, he held the distinguished position of Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning. He also taught ethics at the Tufts University School of Medicine and was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, Brooklyn College, The New School, and New York University. Dr. Krimsky received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from Brooklyn College, CUNY, and Purdue University, respectively, and a master’s and doctorate in philosophy at Boston University.

In his prolific and inspirational academic career, Dr. Krimsky authored 17 books including Understating DNA AncestryGenetic AlchemyBiotechnics and Society, Hormonal Chaos, and Science in the Private Interest. He also co-authored Environmental Hazards and Agricultural Biotechnology and the Environment and published more than 235 articles on the regulation and social and ethical aspects of science and technology, bringing attention to issues such as DNA privacy, GMOs, and other conflicts of interest in science. Dr. Krimsky served on the National Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee of NIH and chaired the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility of AAAS and had been a consultant to the Office of Technology Assessment. He was on the Board of Directors of the Council for Responsible Genetics and served on the editorial board of seven noted journals.

Born in Brooklyn, he embraced his New York roots, eventually living part-time in Greenwich Village. He was often seen in Washington Square Park, getting coffee and a bagel at one of his favorite cafés, or at the Green Market where he would often pick up a treat, usually apple pie. He also played guitar and harmonica, sometimes jamming with friends, and writing and improvising songs. Fiercely loyal, kind, and supportive to family and friends, he was thoroughly devoted to teaching and to his students. Survivors include the love of his life, his wife Carolyn Boriss-Krimsky, playwright, visual artist and author, and two adored children Alyssa Krimsky Clossey and Eliot Krimsky, along with their spouses Will Clossey and Lisa Benger, and three cherished grandchildren, Benjamin Perry Clossey, Andrew Krimsky Clossey, and Siona Rose Krimsky. To learn more about his life’s work, please visit the many pages within this website.

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What Do Plastics & “Pre-Polluted Babies” Have in Common?  

Image credit: CC0 Public Domain.

By Sharon Franklin.

While modern science has greatly improved the American way of life, it has also increasingly revealed the human costs of these advances. Of these costs are the large-scale environmental pollution that has the potential to impact the health of people across the world. Kyle Bagenstose a reporter for, recently published an alarming article emphasizing this impact.

In this article, Bagenstose reports that during last month, a groundbreaking study from the University of California, San Francisco of 171 pregnant women found more than 9 in 10 had measurable amounts of 19 different chemicals and pesticides in their bodies. This also showed evidence suggesting that babies are born “pre-polluted” with chemicals. The full extent of health effects from such exposures is unknown, but scientists are worried that they could contribute to the rising rates of autoimmune diseases, developmental disorders such as autism and reproductive harms, and the mysterious decline of sperm counts in men amongst the U.S. population. Dr. Tracey Woodruff, co-author of this study states, “Our understanding of exposures is not keeping up. What are these chemicals doing?”  Even though the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act have decreased the amount of many toxins in the environment over the past 50 years, according to Dr. Woodruff, experts are saying regulators remain far behind in catching up to the threats of the modern era. This is partly due to how little the more than 40,000 chemicals in commerce have been robustly studied for their potential human health effects.

Is there anything we can do about this? According to Stephanie Wein of PennEnvironment, states’ efforts to cut down on pollution have often focused on the “end fate” of materials, such as recycling plastics or repurposing materials. This, she says, means that solutions usually misplace responsibility. Says Wein, “The onus should not be on local governments or consumers to deal with the waste. The onus should instead be on the companies that create it.” 

Roland Geyer, an ecology researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, adds, “There will always be plastic[…] it’s such a cheap and incredibly useful material[.] But we need to agree that this is too much, and we need to bring it down.” Other experts agree that solutions need to come from federal agencies like the EPA, with support from Congress through more funding and newer authorities. 

For a community like Port Arthur, Texas, a city rife with cancer, where little is being done to understand and address hazards, such changes are essential. John Beard, of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, notes that in his community, the French-owned Total Energies’ oil refinery is one of 12 facilities that the Environmental Integrity Project calculated as emitting benzene at levels above EPA limits. He thinks, “We need more monitoring along the fenceline communities, and also beyond the fenceline, because the effects are carried downwind. We have to regulate how these refineries go about their business.”