Timeline: PFAS in Drinking Water and What is Being Done
Who would have thought that an accidental discovery can be quite useful but also destructive at the same time? In 1938, Dr. Roy J. Plunkett created Teflon by accident. What was supposed to be an experimental refrigerator coolant became a waxy substance that is regarded as ‘the most slippery material in existence.’ Dr. Plunkett’s discovery caught the attention of the DuPont Jackson Laboratory which was located in Deepwater, New Jersey. At this point, studies have found that Dr. Plunkett’s Teflon was heat-resistant on top of being stick-resistant. 10 years after Dr. Plunkett’s discovery of the material Teflon, DuPont introduced it into the market. By 1951 the process of creating Teflon changed and now involved the use of ammonium perfluorooctanoate, also known as C8. The production of this chemical was outsourced to Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing or 3M. After only three years of this processing change, DuPont employees started to express their concerns about some health hazards that are brought about by the C8 chemical. Four years after ammonium perfluorooctanoate was utilized for the production of Teflon, a study published by Norby and Luck from Stanford University showed that perfluoroalkyls and polyfluoroalkyls, collectively known as PFAS, can bind to the proteins in human blood. But this was not enough to stop the production of PFAS, in 1956 3M began selling Scotchgard Protector. A stain repellant that contained a fluorochemical. To make matters worse, the FDA approved the Teflon cookware in 1962.
The Negative Effects of PFAS Started to come to light
In 1970, one may expect an abrupt end to the problems that PFAS brought as the Environmental Protection Agency or EPA was established in this year. However, PFAS continued to pose a threat to the health of many. 8 years later, C8 was detected in the blood of those who worked for DuPont and 3M. Despite this major find, the two companies withheld their information from the public. In May 1981, DuPont detected C8 in the blood of five employees which had recently given birth to babies with eye-related birth defects. This is an unsettling discovery, yet no action is taken to regulate PFAS exposure. A year later, DuPont's director of employee relations recommends steps to reduce C8 exposure. However, no concrete steps are taken to effectively reduce PFAS exposure. In 1984, DuPont detected C8 contamination in the drinking waters of households that are present within Lubeck, W.Va., and Little Hocking, Ohio. At this point, the company is aware that its operations can affect the lives of locals and not only their employees. Three years later, DuPont’s chief toxicologist established guidelines regarding the acceptable level of C8 in their workers’ blood. However, they did not establish an action level or a harmful substance concentration in which medical surveillance is necessary. Their reason is that there are no known human health effects at this point. In 1991 DuPont started to pay attention to the community and created a guideline for perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA in the surrounding community. In this guideline, it stated that drinking water should not contain PFOA in concentrations of 1,000 parts per thousand(ppt).
DuPont fined by the EPA
2001, it's been around 15 years since PFOA was first detected in drinking water. Since then, PFAS has been linked to various diseases and conditions such as heart disease, cancer, and hormone disruption. The environmental problem regarding PFOA and PFAS has since grown from a local problem to a national crisis. However, the EPA has yet to take any action. Finally, in 2002, EPA stepped in and created an interim action level with DuPont. In this agreement, they decided that a concentration of 14,000 ppt is the action level. In 2005, DuPont agreed to provide $235 million worth of medical assistance and monitoring for over 70,000 people as compensation for the harm that they have inflicted on the locals. Later this year, the Environmental Working Group or EWG filed a petition to EPA which resulted in DuPont having to pay a $16.5 million fine for withholding research regarding the harmful effects of PFAS and PFOA towards humans.
PFAS threat finally taken seriously
The PFAS threat was vindicated around 2007. In this year, New Jersey created health-based guidance which set the exposure limit to 40 ppt. The Minnesota Department of Health also made their move against PFAS. They commissioned the testing of home water filters to determine whether they can remove PFAS in water. These tests showed that activated carbon devices and reverse osmosis filters can reduce PFAS in water significantly. Two years later, the EPA released a Provisional Health Advisory which is based upon PFOA’s effect on the liver. This is a temporary and voluntary standard that aids the authorities in taking action against PFOA exposure. However, since this Provisional Health Advisory is temporary and voluntary, it does not carry the force of law.
In 2013, a study involving 400 children who are residents of the Faeroe Islands of the North Atlantic uncovered something unsettling. Researchers, Dr. Phillipe Grandjean and Esben Budtz-Jórgensen, Ph.D., discovered that the children’s diet, which was primarily fish, was heavily contaminated with PFOA. Furthermore, their data points to the conclusion that PFOA exposure may reduce the efficacy of childhood vaccines. As a recommendation to health officials, the researchers stated in their paper that the lowest acceptable PFAS concentration in drinking water or food should be 0.3 ppt or less. This is the lowest PFAS concentration to have ever been suggested. This is the year where PFAS was recognized as a serious public health risk. The EPA initiated a program that conducted a nationwide sampling for Perfluorooctanoic acid, Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, and four other perfluorinated compounds in drinking water. Under this program, all U.S. public water systems serving 10,000 or more people are required to test for contaminants that are not yet regulated such as PFAS. After a round of sampling, EPA determined that only one percent of the drinking water samples were contaminated with PFOA. However, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and American Water Works Association criticized EPA’s tests saying that they were not designed to detect low levels of the aforementioned chemicals. EPA’s program was based on studies that were published before 2008, which means they are using outdated information. Studies conducted on PFAS, which were published before 2008, used rats as test animals. This is not ideal because rats can eliminate PFOA quickly from their bodies compared to humans. Using rats as test animals for investigating the negative effects of PFAS will yield toxic threshold concentrations which are higher than what is appropriate for humans. In 2015, another round of nationwide testing was conducted. This time, results showed that 6.5 million Americans in 27 states were drinking water that was tainted by PFAS. Furthermore, PFOA was detected in 94 public water systems. Although the detected amounts were small. Some studies, like Dr. Grandjean and Dr. Esben’s, suggest that it could still be hazardous even at the tiniest of doses. Studies regarding the negative effects of PFOA concluded in 2015. At this point, researchers discovered that PFOA and closely related fluorinated chemicals can cause kidney and testicular cancer, birth defects, heart disease, thyroid disease, complications during pregnancy, and the weakening of the immune system. One study was able to uncover a possible link between PFOA ability to disrupt hormones and the occurrence of breast cancer. Worse still, new research has uncovered that the lowest amount of PFOA that was detected by EPA’s drinking water testing initiative was actually five times higher than what is safe to drink. Despite this, there was some good news in 2015. DuPont and seven other companies responsible for liberating PFOA into the environment have agreed to phase out the production of the chemical. This is a huge win but the chemical will linger in the environment for several decades. What’s more, is that the chemical will linger from one generation to the next as it passes from mother to child.
EPA updated their health advisory regarding PFOA and Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid or PFOS in 2016. They lowered the concentration to 70 ppt. A year later, the state of New Jersey proposed a legal limit of 14 ppt. In the same year, 2017, scientists from the Environmental Working Group released a health guideline which was based on Dr. Budtz-Jórgensen and Dr. Grandjean’s 2013 research paper. Also in 2017, the state of Minnesota released a research paper regarding a faucet-mounted carbon filter made by PUR. This filter was tested for seven PFAS chemicals. Six out of seven PFAS chemicals, including PFOA and PFOS, were effectively removed by the filter.
2 years ago from our present date, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances Control proposed a new limit. According to their calculations, which was based on EPA’s methods, drinking water should not carry more than 11 ppt of PFAS chemicals. Meanwhile, Europe set their drinking water limits to 6.5 ppt. Despite this, Dr. Grandjean, the doctor responsible for the 2013 study on PFAS, was still unhappy. He published a case study regarding the legal limits of PFAS chemicals and was disappointed to report that they have gone lax. He also mentioned that although the United States has banned PFAS, PFOA, and PFOS, the EPA allowed for replacement chemicals which were not studied carefully. On top of this, the EPA has left most of the regulatory responsibilities to states and local jurisdictions. EWG kept on stressing that establishing a legal limit that is backed by federal law is important and that it is needed immediately.
Eliminating PFAS in Drinking Water
In 2017, an under-sink reverse osmosis filter was the recommended filter to prevent PFAS contamination in drinking water. Aside from being effective, the efficacy of the filter is easily determined through the use of an electrical conductivity tester. Tests have been conducted to determine the efficacy of reverse osmosis filters. Three out of four of them were able to decrease PFAS levels to below 10 ppt. Reverse osmosis systems were more consistent in removing PFAS compared to activated carbon systems. Moreover, reverse osmosis’ filtering power can be improved further by adding an activated carbon filtration stage. This way, the end user can reap both of the benefits of reverse osmosis filters and activated carbon filters.
The fastest way of improving the quality of your drinking water is still through the use of filters. We recommend the usage of reverse osmosis filters for the elimination of PFAS in drinking water. To determine whether the filter is working or not. An inexpensive conductivity meter can be used. Reverse osmosis filters are supposed to remove ions and total dissolved solids in addition to other contaminants from drinking water. Upon testing with a conductivity meter, a conductivity reading that is low indicates that the filter is working as it should be. It is better to choose those reverse osmosis systems which allow for the insertion of an activated carbon filter. For there may be properties of the activated carbon filter that you would like your system to have.