The spread of ‘Forever Chemicals’ is even worse than you thought | Thursday Morning Coffee

A new study has found more than 57,000 suspected dischargers of toxic PFAS chemicals — including Pa.

By: - October 13, 2022 7:15 am

New research indicates that the spread of toxic so-called “forever chemicals” nationwide has left few parts of the country untouched, with the true scope of the problem most likely “dramatically underreported,” according to one expert.

The research, published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, identifies more than 57,000 sites potentially contaminated by man-made PFAS, or per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances.

The 57,412 sites with potential contamination “include places where PFAS-laden firefighting foam, known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, was likely released; certain industrial facilities; sites related to PFAS-containing waste; military sites and airports,” according to the Environmental Working Group.

The study was led by a team at Northeastern University in Boston, and was joined by researchers elsewhere, the advocacy group said in a statement.

PFAS contaminants have been linked to a variety of health concerns in humans, including fertility issues, low birth weights, and an increased risk of cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Capital-Star reported in April.

While there are currently no federal standards for regulating the substances, several states, including California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Vermont have adopted or proposed limits for PFAS in drinking water, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The chemicals have proven to be a particular challenge in Pennsylvania, especially around the Willow Grove Naval Air Station in suburban Philadelphia, the Capital-Star reported in 2020.

Republican U.S. Rep., Brian Fitzpatrick, whose Bucks County-based 1st District seat includes the military installation, and U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th District, a veteran, have been vocal proponents of stronger federal action to fight the chemicals.

Bird and marsh grass along the Chesapeake Bay. (Image via the Virginia Office of Natural Resources).

Last year, the Environmental Working Group released research identifying 41,862 potential dischargers of PFAS, including facilities in industries known to use PFAS, waste facilities, and airports.

The advocacy group’s research also noted the “presence of an additional 21,350 inactive locations that could also be potential sources of PFAS contamination,” the group said in its statement.

“The true scale of PFAS contamination in the United States is likely dramatically underreported” David Andrews, a senior scientist at Environmental Working Group said in a statement. “As PFAS are found to be harmful at lower and lower levels, it is critically important to identify sources of potential contamination and take steps to protect downstream communities who may be unwittingly exposed.”

In April, more than two-dozen advocacy groups sent a letter to the state Department Environmental Protection asking regulators to adopt a more stringent set of guidelines for protecting Pennsylvania’s drinking water from PFAS contamination, the Capital-Star reported at the time.

In its statement, the Environmental Working Group said identifying potential sources of discharge is important because it helps state regulators to target future testing and to alert surrounding communities of the risk.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed designating the two most notorious types of PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – as hazardous substances, the advocacy group said. Such a designation would require the immediate reporting of more than a pound of chemicals within 24 hours.

“For decades, industrial dischargers of PFAS have been allowed to pollute with impunity,” Melanie Benesh, the Environmental Working Group’s vice president of government affairs, said. “Federal regulations limiting discharges into the air and water are urgently needed to turn off the tap at the source. The EPA should move swiftly to set regulations for the industries most likely to be dumping PFAS into the environment. State regulators should also act quickly to incorporate limits on the amount of PFAS that can be released into existing permits.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.