Last month, Jones County residents in Maysville found out their drinking water had been contaminated with high levels PFAS, likely from firefighting foam. This news comes two years after Wilmington learned about Gen X in the Cape Fear River. PRE’s Jared Brumbaugh explains how a statewide group of university researchers is seeking to answer some of the most pressing questions about the man-made chemicals.
Per-and Polyfluoroalkyl substances are synthetic compounds that are used in stain repellents, firefighting foams, and nonstick cookware. They’re regarded as “forever chemicals,” meaning that they don’t breakdown in the environment or the human body. Studies have shown that PFAS exposure can cause an increased risk of low birth weight, decreased fertility, asthma, and suppression of vaccine responses. Kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and pregnancy induced high blood pressure can be caused by PFAS chemicals.
Scientists confirm that PFAS can contaminate groundwater supplies and that the chemicals can be absorbed through the skin. Less is known about PFAS in the air we breathe, according to Dr. Jamie DeWitt, an associate professor in the department of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine.
“We don’t have a lot of data on health effects from breathing in PFAS. I actually just started up a collaboration with Dr. James Bonner at North Carolina State University he has some lungs from animals I exposed orally, but he’s going to start doing some lung exposure to look not only at effects in the lungs, but at effects throughout the body when the lung is the root of exposure.”
Ongoing testing at ECU’s West Research Campus may help researchers with the North Carolina PFAS Network better understand how PFAS move through the air. Since January, Sam Vance, a master’s student in DeWitt’s lab at the Brody School of Medicine has been responsible for changing the air filters at the site, which is one of five sampling sites across North Carolina.
“It’s sitting out here in the middle of an open field where pretty much it’s going to be only exposed to the natural background air,” said Vance. “Basically, we just set up this air filter system and it’s going to pull a continuous amount of air throughout the week, all week long. And we collect a sample every week so we have a basically a representative of how much of certain contaminants they can detect at that point in time.”
The North Carolina PFAS Network is a collaborative project involving dozens of researchers at academic institutions across the state who have expertise in PFAS and emerging contaminants. Their work includes observing the health effects of PFAS, studying the bioaccumulation in crops and aquatic environments, and developing a predictive model to determine which water wells are at greatest risk of contamination. Dr. Lee Ferguson, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke University is involved with sampling about 400 different drinking water sources for PFAS compounds, an undertaking funded by the N.C. General Assembly.
“We take the samples in plastic water bottles that are specifically designed for this type of sampling for PFAS. We bring them directly back to the laboratory here at Duke or at NC State and we analyze them using technology called liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry. And so this is an analytical instrument that is very, very sensitive and able to analyze for a variety of PFAS compounds at very high sensitivity very quickly,” said Ferguson.
In early May, water samples from public water supplies were collected in Burgaw, Jacksonville, Maysville, Pollocksville, Vanceboro, Atlantic Beach, Morehead City, Beaufort, and Newport. All of the samples, with the exception of Maysville, had very low or undetectable PFAS in their water supply.
Maysville officials were notified and the town decided to switch their approximately 450 customers to the Jones County water supply. In a news release, the town said they had never tested for PFAS contaminants.
“The issue with PFAS is that these are unregulated contaminants,” said Ferguson. “There are no regulatory bodies in the U.S. that have listed enforceable regulations for PFAS compounds in drinking water. So therefore, the Utilities are doing their due diligence that’s required by regulations in analyzing other regulated compounds in their water.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA compounds. However, some studies have shown that emerging PFAS compounds at concentrations of as little as 10 parts per trillion may cause adverse health effects. Some states, including New Jersey and California, have proposed advisory levels for some PFAS compounds as low as 10 parts per trillion.
“The problem is that for many of these individual PFAS compounds very limited or in some cases no information about the health effects for humans or even in some cases laboratory animals for these compounds. So it’s very difficult to give a quantitative estimate on what a safe level for PFAS in drinking water is.”
There are several ways to limit your exposure to PFAS contaminants. Avoid using nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, clothing with a waterproof coating, and stain-resistant carpets, rugs and furniture. According to DeWitt, most water filters aren’t as effective at eliminating PFAS compounds.
“A lot of filters that we could purchase at the grocery store are carbon-based filters. And they’re pretty good at pulling out the longer chain PFAS, things like PFOA and PFOS, which is perfluorooctanesulfonate. But they’re not as good at cleaning out the shorter chain compounds and the shorter chain compounds. And the shorter chain compounds are ones that we consider to be emerging. In other words, we’re just finding them in some of the water,” said DeWitt.
In a test by PFAS Network Team 3, researchers found that reverse osmosis filters removed all PFAS contaminants. Refrigerator filters removed on average almost 60% of PFAS contaminants tested and pitcher filters removed on average about 48% of contaminants tested. The North Carolina PFAS Network expects to develop an effective water treatment process for removing PFAS at large scale water treatment plans and in the home by 2020.
The Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry suggests some ways to minimize your exposure to PFAS chemicals. The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has a fact sheet on PFAS. The U.S. EPA has information on PFAS contaminants currently being studied, cleaning up contamininated sites, and management of PFAS materials.