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YP Newsletter Highlight: Have Some Questions about PFAS? Written by Krystal Clark

Krystal Clark graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay in May 2016 with a Bachelors of Environmental Science and currently works at Foth as an Environmental Scientist.

She is an active member of the SWANA Badger Chapter and AROW. She currently serves as the Chair of the AROW Emerging Leaders and as an appointed member of the Wisconsin Integrated Resource Management Conference (WIRMC) Planning Committee.


What does PFAS stand for?

PFAS is an acronym for per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances. You don’t need a chemistry background to understand what these compounds are about. I’ll break it down for you. PFAS is an umbrella term for an enormous family of 4,000+ man-made, fluorinated, synthetic, organic chemicals. When picturing their molecular structure, they consist of a fluorinated chain of carbons plus a functional group at the end. If the molecule is per-fluorinated, it means all carbons are bonded only to fluorine; this is the most stable. If it is poly-fluorinated, it means not all of the carbon atoms are bonded to a fluorine. Two of the most commonly discussed PFAS compounds are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS).

How are PFAS entering our bodies and the surrounding environment?

Their fate and transport occurs ubiquitously. PFAS can be present in air, soil, sediments, groundwater, surface water, and biota such as humans, animals, and plants (think our agricultural crops). The most concerning contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility, for example: an industrial facility where PFAS were used or locations where firefighting foam was used. However, just as our natural resources flow and migrate across spatial areas, PFAS goes with them.

Why are PFAS a contaminant of emerging concern (CEC)?

The potential health effects include high cholesterol, decreased response to vaccines, increased risk of certain conditions (thyroid disease, high blood-pressure, pre-eclamsia), decreased fertility in women, and lower infant birth weights. Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. The concentrations at which PFOA and PFOS become dangerous is still undefined. PFAS have been shown to bioaccumulate, with detectable blood serum levels found in >98% of the US population. PFAS are biopersistent in not only our bodies, but in the environment, as well.

Evidently, it is difficult for us, the consumer, to manage the amount of PFAS we come into contact with from our water, food, or air. This may sound like nothing but bad news, but there is some nationwide progress on PFAS regulation taking place. In 2016, the EPA published a limit for drinking water of 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Nationwide, states and municipalities are taking action by testing for PFAS in drinking water and rolling out guidelines or regulations.

Where did PFAS come from?

They were invented in the 1940s by 3M and used at DuPont and other manufacturers until the 2000s. They were widely used in industrial and consumer product applications. They were designed to make our lives better and easier by incorporating them into everyday products. PFAS have unique properties such as repelling liquids and heat resistance. PFAS were/are used for firefighting foam, scotchguard, Teflon on cookware, waterproof textiles, cosmetics, the photography industry, paper products, metal plating materials, and more. The reason I used “were/are” is because other molecular forms of PFAS are still being used today for select applications, including a form called “GenX”. In addition, despite the fact that use of PFAS has declined in the US, other countries are still utilizing PFAS which makes its way into the US via import of consumer products.

What is being done about the problem?

Our home-state of Wisconsin is making headway. Gov. Tony Evers recently announced he is directing the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to take additional efforts to address PFAS in drinking, ground, and surface waters. Gov. Evers directed the DNR to pursue rulemaking using science-based recommendations from the Department of Health Services (DHS). The DHS has recommended a cumulative groundwater enforcement standard of 20 ppt, which is similar to guidelines or standards in New Hampshire, New Jersey, Vermont, Minnesota, and Michigan.

Members of the public and interested parties will have opportunities to provide input throughout this process. The DNR intends to adopt the DHS recommended enforcement standard. Moreover, in light of recent discoveries of contamination of drinking water and groundwater sources across the state, the DNR is initiating a new voluntary PFAS testing program.

The DNR has asked 125 municipal wastewater treatment facilities to begin sampling and analyzing for PFAS. The included facilities were selected because they are more likely to receive wastewater from businesses that knowingly or unknowingly use PFAS. Data from the sampling results will be used to assist facilities to identify and implement a plan to reduce the amount of PFOA and PFOS entering their facility.

Source reduction efforts may include: product substitution, operational controls, pretreatment, and clean-up of historical contamination.

Currently, there are no USEPA-approved analytical methods for PFAS analysis of wastewater, but the DNR recommends that facilities use a laboratory that utilizes an isotope dilution procedure.

I conducted a search for sites with listed PFAS contamination on the Bureau for Remediation and Redevelopment Tracking System (BRTTS on the Web) platform and revealed a total of 25 sites listed in the database.

With the voluntary PFAS testing program for municipal wastewater treatment facilities, this number is sure to increase. It is not clear what the future holds regarding PFAS contamination.

You can stay up to date on statewide PFAS news by subscribing to resources offered by the DNR, including their PFAS Technical Advisory Group.

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