Contamination Watch: PFOA & PFOS

BY SHERIKA TENAYA

 

You may hear them quietly mentioned in the media under the unassuming acronym of PFAs, which stands for per-and polyfluroalkyl substances – a name that hardly describes the prolific and destructive nature of America’s not-so-new class of star contaminants.

 

What is it?

 

The two most common types are perfluoroctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluoroctane sulfonate (PFOS), and they are used in things like pesticides, firefighting foam, non-stick cookware coatings, food packaging, stain repellents, paint, cleaning products, textile and leather products, metal plating, electronics and the like.

 

These man-made chemicals are in no way naturally occurring in our world and are, in fact – as of the early 2000’s – no longer allowed to be manufactured in the US.

 

A blessing, to be sure, but not enough to keep us safe. Especially since the EPA’s Significant New Use Rules (SNUR) still allow for them to be used in a few, “highly technical” applications and allows for existing stocks created before the SNUR came into effect to still be used.

 

The problem is, the same thing that makes them so useful in these various applications is the very thing that makes them so destructive for us and our environment: they have a unique ability to withstand high temperatures, water, grease, as well as strong acids. They simply don’t go away or degrade over time.

 

During the manufacturing process, large amounts of these compounds were released into the air, soil and water around these flurochemical facilities. As of May 6, the Environmental Working Group reported 610 different sites spanning across 43 different states. That’s a bare minimum of 446 different communities with detection of PFAS contamination in their tap water supplies.

 

And keep in mind, these numbers are impacted by the fact that some states are slow to focus on detection of these compounds – so the numbers may very well be much higher.

 

Where is it?

 

In their anionic form, they are water soluble and can transfer easily from the soil to the groundwater, where they are carried far and wide. Indeed, PFOS have already been found to be bio-concentrated at concerning levels in fish.

 

So how do we get exposed? The biggest culprit is the water you drink and bathe in, next is the ingestion of food grown in contaminated soil as well as ingestion of farmed fish – but you could also be exposed when you use commercial products, and even from inhaling particulate in the air over which PFC-containing planes have passed by.

 

If you live near a garbage dump site, a military base, a section of land where firefighters work or practice (or have in the past worked and practiced), and of course, near a flurochemical production facility – you are more than likely exposed.

 

What are the impacts on my health?

 

To be totally honest, they haven’t done much testing on the impact on human bodies, although we do know some things, for example – toxicology studies show that PFOS and PFOA are readily absorbed after eating/drinking/inhaling and accumulate primarily in the serum, kidney and liver.

 

We know that PFOS and PFOA have half-lives in humans ranging from 2 to 9 years, depending on the study. This lengthy half life basically means that these chemicals hang out in your system, increasing the burden on your detoxifying organs over time and more than likely resulting in chronic toxicity. Indeed, chronic exposure to PFOS and PFOA has been shown to lead to the development of tumors in the liver of rats.

 

Speaking of which, let’s talk about the research done on animals in regards to these chemicals:

 

Acute- and intermediate-duration oral studies on rodents show that they can have “concerning impacts” on rodent growth development, reproductive system, neuroendocrine system and can also mess with the rodents’ fatty acid metabolism and may deregulate metabolism of lipids and lipoproteins. Translation: wonky energy, screwy hormones, increased toxicity, stress on the heart, and several other potentially dire effects. 

 

And let’s not forget about cancer. In May 2006, the EPA Science Advisory Board said that, in regards to the PFOA cancer data, it is consistent with the EPA guidelines for the Carcinogen Risk Assessment descriptor and are “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”

 

What can I do?

 

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there’s three ways to filter for these contaminants.

 

The first is through activated carbon treatment, which is effective because it is highly porous and also provides a large surface area to which contaminants may absorb. It  is made from organic materials with high carbon content such as wood, lignite, and coal; and is often used in granular form called granular activated carbon (GAC).

 

GAC has been shown to effectively remove PFAS from drinking water when it is used in a flow through filter mode after particulates have already been removed and has been shown to work well on both PFOA and PFOS.

 

The second method is high-pressure membranes, such as reverse osmosis, which have been shown to be  extremely effective at removing PFAS. According to the research, more than 90 percent effective, to be exact.

 

Finally, there’s ion exchange. Ion exchange resins are like tiny powerful magnets that attract and hold the contaminated materials from passing through the water system. The negatively charged ions of these PFAs are removed with anionic resins. However, these can be a bit more spendy.

The Simple Solution:

 

In removing PFOA & PFOS, our K5 Reverse Osmosis Drinking Water System gets the job done and, further, has been certified by the industry’s NSF/ANSI 58 standard for removal of these contaminants, as it has both the high pressure reverse osmosis membrane mentioned above as well as the activated carbon, covering both types of contaminants mentioned here.

 

When it comes to the health and well-being of your family, it’s important to give some deep contemplation towards your values and personal responsibility when it comes to preventing or minimizing toxin exposure to those who rely on you for their well-being. We all have a responsibility as modern day humans to evaluate how we can be as effective as possible in keeping our personal environment, as well as our communal environs, as safe and sustainable as possible.