In addition to the traditional chemicals found in drinking water supplies at various bases around the country (TCE, PCE, benzene, vinyl chloride, lead, etc.), the latest emerging chemicals of concern are PFOA and PFOS. Found in base firefighting foams, the concern now is that use of these foams introduced PFOA and PFOS chemicals into the ground and runoff, leeching into groundwater wells and ending up in drinking water sources.
You’ve probably already read several news stories about this very problem at bases in the Northeast. In fact, Congress plans to fund a national study on these chemicals, the first of its kind to date, to figure out the extent of contamination. Systemic, toxic military contamination is an issue that continues to grow exponentially. The public is beginning to wake up to confront an long overdue issue – the government’s negligent use of certain chemicals across the military, without properly exploring the health and safety concerns for their employees and service members. As understanding of the harmful nature of these chemicals becomes more clear with time, we are only now beginning to see just how these rampant and pervasive toxins were widely used within our military system, both at home and abroad.
Undoubtedly, more bases will uncover PFAS and PFOS problems. Just this past week, two drinking water wells in Atlantic, NC (near MCAS Cherry Point) tested positive for higher than recommended levels of the chemicals. Bottled water is being dispersed by the Navy to residents. This is likely just the tip of the discovery.
So what are PFOA and PFOS? What harm can these chemicals cause to the human body over time from exposure? We decided to deep dive into these and pull together information from various agencies and experts to provide our readers with a concise overview that gets straight to the point. The following is only a starting point. If you think you have been exposed or in harms way with these chemicals during your time near or at a military installation, we encourage you to research as many sources as possible and educate yourself quickly.
PFOA and PFOS Defined
Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) persists indefinitely in the environment. It is a toxicant and carcinogen in animals. It is a man-made chemical commonly burned off during the production of products that use Teflon.
“PFOA is not Teflon — it’s not even in it,” says Bill Walker, vice president and managing editor of the Environmental Working Group. “It is an ingredient that’s used to make Teflon and to make it easier to work with,” Walker says. But it burns off in the creation process. – EWG
According to WebMD, “Measurable amounts of PFOA have been found in drinking water in at least 29 states.”
PFOA has the potential to be a health concern because it can stay in the environment and in the human body for long periods of time. Studies have found that it is present worldwide at very low levels in just about everyone’s blood. Higher blood levels have been found in community residents where local water supplies have been contaminated by PFOA. People exposed to PFOA in the workplace can have levels many times higher. – Cancer.org
Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS) is yet another man-made chemical in the class of PFCs (perfluorinated compounds). PFOS was the key ingredient in Scotchgard, a fabric protector made by 3M, and numerous stain repellents. Its maker, 3M, began phasing out the chemical in 2002 due to pressure from the EPA.
PFOA and PFOS Potential Health Issues
Several types of cancers have been suggested as having links to exposure to PFOA, especially for those exposed at high levels (such as via drinking water contamination or living near / working in chemical plants using it).
- Testicular and kidney cancer
- Problems to fetuses, breastfed babies, and children including low birth weight, early puberty, and immune system problems
- Liver damage
- Thyroid disease
- Ulcerative colitis
- Changes to cholesterol
- Changes in blood pressure during pregnancy
Studies have looked at people exposed to PFOA from living near or working in chemical plants. Some of these studies have suggested an increased risk of testicular cancer with increased PFOA exposure. Studies have also suggested possible links to kidney cancer and thyroid cancer, but the increases in risk have been small and could have been due to chance. Other studies have suggested possible links to other cancers, including prostate, bladder, and ovarian cancer. But not all studies have found such links, and more research is needed to clarify these findings. – Cancer.org
According to the NIH, primary target organs for these chemicals are: Hepatic (Liver), Renal (Urinary System or Kidneys). Also, the PFOS levels that have been detected in wildlife are considered high enough to affect health parameters, and recently higher serum levels of PFOS were found to be associated with increased risk of chronic kidney disease in the general United States population, consistent with earlier animal studies.
According to IARC
PFOA has been classified by IARC (International Agency for Research on Cancer) as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” (Group 2B). This is based on limited evidence in humans that it can cause testicular and kidney cancer. This finding also includes limited evidence of similar causes in lab animals.
Overview from the EPA
For many years, PFOA and PFOS were widely used in carpets, clothing, furniture fabrics, food packaging, and other materials to make them more resistant to water, grease, and stains. PFOA and PFOS were also used for firefighting at airfields and in a number of industrial processes. Between 2000 and 2002, PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the U.S. by its primary manufacturer. And EPA asked eight major companies to commit to eliminate their production and use of PFOA by the end of 2015 and they have indicated that they have met their commitments. While there are some limited ongoing uses of these chemicals, in recent years, blood testing data has shown that exposures are declining across the country.
For most people, their source of exposure to PFOA and PFOS has come through food and consumer products. But drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in the small percentage of communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies. This is typically a localized issue associated with a specific facility – for example, in communities where a manufacturing plant or airfield made or used these chemicals.
EPA’s assessment indicates that drinking water with individual or combined concentrations of PFOA and PFOS below 70 parts per trillion is not expected to result in adverse health effects over a lifetime of exposure. These levels reflect a margin of protection, including for the most sensitive populations.
If these chemicals are found in drinking water systems above these levels, system operators should quickly conduct additional sampling to assess the level, scope, and source of contamination. They should also promptly notify consumers and consult with their state drinking water agency to discuss appropriate next steps. Public notification is especially important for pregnant or nursing women because of the impact these chemicals can have on the development of fetuses and breastfed or formula-fed infants. There are a number of options available to water systems to lower concentrations of these chemicals in the drinking water supply.
Potential Future Solutions
Granular activated carbon (GAC) was shown to be adept at removing most PFASs and it may be the average utility’s best bet for PFOA and PFOS contamination.
“In many cases, the most cost-effective treatment for removing PFOA and PFOS will be GAC, though water utilities will need to test GAC to determine site-specific performance.” -Water Research Foundation (WRF)
- EPA Groundwater and Drinking Water – Health Advisories – PFOA/PFOS
- Cancer.org – PFOA Data
- PubChem – PFOS Data
- PubChem – PFOA Data
- NIH Immunotoxicity Data – PFOA and PFOS
Relevant Source Documents:
EPA Documents on PFOA/PFOS –
- Fact Sheet: PFOA and PFOS Drinking Water Health Advisories (PDF)(5 pp, 391 K, November 2016, EPA 800-F-16-003)
- Memorandum: Clarification about the Appropriate Application of the PFOA and PFOS Drinking Water Health Advisories (PDF)(2 pp, 252 K, November 15, 2016)
- FR Notice on the 2016 Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS (PDF)(2 pp, 216 K)
- Drinking Water Health Advisory for PFOA (PDF)(103 pp, 1 MB, May 2016, EPA-822-R-16-005)
- Health Effects Support Document for PFOA (PDF)(322 pp, 3 MB, May 2016, EPA 822-R-16-003)
- Drinking Water Health Advisory for PFOS (PDF)(88 pp, 2 MB, May 2016, EPA 822-R-16-004)
- Health Effects Support Document for PFOS (PDF)(245 pp, 3 MB, May 2016, EPA 822-R-16-002)
- EPA Response to Peer Review Comments (PDF)(199 pp, 902 K, May 2016)
EPA Provisional Health Advisories and Draft Health Effects Documents –
- 2009 Provisional Health Advisory
- 2014 Draft Health Effects Document for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA)
- 2014 Draft Health Effects Document for Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS)
- Peer Reviewer Summary Report: External Peer Review of EPA’s Draft Health Effects Documents for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS)
Additional Links and Information 2019 –
- Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a large class of approximately 5,000 man-made chemicals used in industry and consumer products worldwide, may affect people’s health.
- CDC/ATSDR recently announced exposure assessments in communities near current or former military installations known to have past or current PFAS contamination in drinking water.
- Interstate Technology Regulatory Council – Environmental Fate and Transport forPer- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances
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