Environment

EPA grossly underestimated “safe” levels of fluorinated compounds in drinking water

The chemical structure of PFOA, a persistent fluorinated compound that can cause chronic health problems, including liver and kidney disease.

The Environmental Protection Agency was far too lenient when it set a provisional health goal of 70 parts per trillion for fluorinated compounds such as PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. That’s the conclusion of an 842-page report — which the EPA had tried to suppress — published June 21 by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

In fact, based on results from previous human and animal studies, the ATSDR recommended minimum risk levels that are far more stringent: Just 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA. The document is open for public comment through July 23.

The ATSDR is not under the EPA, but the Department of Health and Human Service’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

PFOA and PFOS, which linger in the human body for years, can cause various health problems, depending on the level and duration of the exposure: These include thyroid disorders, depressed immune response to vaccines, liver and kidney disease, elevated cholesterol and possibly cancer.

Both PFOS and PFOA, as well as other similar compounds, have been detected in the Cape Fear River, the Haw River, Lake Michie in Durham, and Jordan Lake. They’ve also been found in the drinking water in Cary and Wilmington, as well as private well water near the Chemours plant.

According to data from the Town of Cary published last December, finished tap water contained levels of PFOS  at 4 ppt and PFOA at 9.6 ppt, below the ATSDR’s recommended minimum risk level for drinking water. Finished water at the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s Sweeney plant contained 40 ppts of the compounds, based on results from March 2018 sampling.

Raw water from Lake Michie and the Little River tested at 2.4 ppt to 7 ppt for the compounds, although after being treated by the Durham water utility’s Brown plant, the levels decreased to 2.7 to 4.8 ppt.

The ATSDR report mentioned that bluegill caught from the Haw River (it didn’t specify which part) had levels of PFOS in tissue at 29.8 ppt.

A provisional health goal is not legally enforceable, but many states, including North Carolina, use it as guidance. As more science has become available and public concern has grown, some states, including New Jersey, have implemented more rigorous standards for these compounds. However, North Carolina law prohibits state regulators from enacting stronger standards than the federal government’s.

Cobey Culton, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said the agency’s staff is reviewing the report, but “has not recommended any additional steps or actions at this time based on the draft.”

GenX, which is among the toxic culprits emanating from the Chemours plant in Fayetteville, was not included in the  ATSDR report. The state has set a provision health goal of 140 ppt in drinking water for GenX.

PFOA and PFOS were manufactured by DuPont and 3M from the 1950s until 2015, when a phase-out began in earnest. They have used to make carpet, microwave popcorn bags, fast food wrappers, dental floss, fire-fighting foam, water repellent clothing and Teflon cookware. As a result, people can ingest the chemicals via food, water, even household dust.

Although they’ve been phased out in the US, these chemicals persist in the environment and travel widely on wind currents. They have been found as far away as the Arctic. (While many developed countries are reducing or eliminating the manufacture of these compounds, China has increased its production.)

As manufacturing facilities have released the compounds into the environment, through wastewater discharge, groundwater, or air emissions, they have been found nearly worldwide, including in polar bears in the Arctic. The compounds can also run off, for example from firefighting training areas where foam containing the chemicals is used. The compounds have been detected at military bases, including the Marine Corps’ Atlantic Outlying Field in Carteret County.

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