Lentis/The PFAS Controversy

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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Figure 1: FRD-903, a specific type of PFAS Compound

Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are used in many consumer goods, including electronics, personal care products, and kitchenware. They reduce friction and repel water, dirt and oil, making them desirable for industrial applications such as firefighting foams, medical devices, and pesticides[1]. They also contain extremely stable carbon-fluorine bonds, making them incredibly persistent in the environment, with studies estimating PFAS lifetimes of over a thousand years[2]. They concentrate within certain areas of the environment, with higher concentrations of PFAS being found in plants grown near contaminated water or soil[3], and bioaccumulate in the food chain, so that high level predators such as whales or bald eagles are exposed to a higher concentration of PFAS[4].

Recent studies have shown PFAS exposure in humans leads to kidney cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, changes to the immune system, and development effects. The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that PFAS suppress antibodies in the immune system, leading to decreased vaccine response, especially in children[5]. Animal testing has shown that short chain PFAS produce the same negative health effects as long chain PFAS; contrary to previous PFAS manufacturers' claims that short chain PFAS are safer. Short chain PFAS accumulate more easily than long chain PFAS, and are more mobile in the environment[6].

Due to concerns raised over the health and environmental risks associated with PFAS, many countries have tried to regulate their use in manufacturing. Current air and water filters are unable to capture PFAS released from industrial processes, and no methods exist to safety dispose of PFAS, as hazardous byproducts are released during disposal[7]. Many countries have passed regulations to limit PFAS to "essential uses," which would incentivize the production of safer alternatives to PFAS, while the United States is currently banning PFAS use only in certain industries, such as paper production and firefighting foam[8]. Both the European Commission and the United States' Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have set a limit on the PFAS concentration allowed in drinking water[9]. However, the EPA does not regulate or provide recommended standards to monitor the use of PFAS in private wells, instead leaving the responsibility of determining their PFAS contamination to the public[10]. This chapter will examine the social implications of unregulated PFAS content in drinking water in the US, and delve deeper into the health risks and corporate role of releasing PFAS into the environment.

Case Studies[edit | edit source]

3M & Mississippi River[edit | edit source]

Figure 2: 3M Headquarters in Maplewood Minnesota

3M is headquartered in Maplewood, Minnesota with a factory in the nearby town Cottage Grove, a small town in Washington County, Minnesota, that’s been in operation since 1947[11]. 3M has a long history of developing PFAS dating back all the way to the 1950s, where they began to use the newly developed processes to manufacture various PFAS, including PFOA and PFOS. During this time, they launched several products based on PFAS, including Scotchgard. Due to the success of Scotchgard and other products, thousands of gallons of wet waste were produced. Some of the waste got into the Mississippi River while others went to nearby disposal sites. These sites were near water wells. From the dumping, pollution spread throughout the Mississippi River, nearby lakes, and four drinking aquifers, creating a 100 square mile underground plume.

For several years, Cottage Grove Myron Bailey had known about the contamination of the water, and in 2017 declared an emergency regarding the situation[12]. Bailey created a plan to install filters in the town’s wells. He approached 3M for help, but the company refused and claimed they were not responsible for the chemicals in the water, citing a plastics fire from 15 years earlier and runoff from the firefighter foam used to extinguish it. Regarding 3M’s response, Cottage Grove’s fire chief Rick Redenius said, “The foam they were saying we used, we don’t carry.” The filters were later installed without the help of 3M.

In November 2017, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson came forth with a case she had been building against 3M, claiming those in the Cottage Grove area are at higher risk of cancer, including childhood cancer, and lower fertility. Swanson demanded $5 billion plus damages to take care of the contamination. Initially, Minnesota’s health department issued a press release saying that the risks Swanson was mentioning should not be ignored, but that no “unusual differences” in cancer rates were found. Despite the claims of the health department, underlying data showed that from 1999 to 2013 Washington County had 28% more cases of chronic lymphocytic leukemia than any other county in Minnesota. Breast cancer rates from 1988 to 2012 were also 7% higher. In addition, PFOA and PFOS contents ranged from 6 parts per trillion to 489 ppt, affecting over 150,000 residents. Death records show a child who died in Oakdale, the town in Washington County most affected by the contamination, was 171% more likely to have had cancer than a child outside the contaminated area.

On the eve of the trial, 3M settled for $850 million. They did not admit any wrongdoing. To date, it was the third largest natural-resource damage claim behind the Deepwater Horizon and Exxon Valdez oil spills. The settlement will help pay for water filters in the affected areas.

Since the settlement, Bailey says 3M has been more generous. He, however, wants more than their money and generosity going forward. The filters are only a temporary solution, and as more PFAS in the surrounding areas are discovered, the situation will only get worse. “To this day they have said they don’t believe anything is wrong,” he said. “If you are a business or individual who has done something wrong, I believe you can be accountable, and say you did it.”

NASA Wallops[edit | edit source]

Figure 3: Research Aircraft on Wallops Runway in 1987,

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has had a facility at Wallops Island, Virginia since 1945[13]. NASA Wallops operates both on the island and a separate main base on the eastern shore, both having runways, launchpads, and other supporting facilities. Fire containment exercises run at NASA Wallops' airstrips throughout the 70’s and 80’s used various fire retardants (AFFF) containing PFAS compounds. Crash sites in 1974 and 1998 also required such chemicals[13].

The EPA Health Advisory limit sparked a 2016 investigation discovering PFAS compounds in a variety of water sources. Concentrations of PFOS (a subcategory of PFAS), was measured in groundwater at 24,000ng/L, and in four out of seven drinking wells for the Town of Chincoteague with concentrations as high as 610 ng/L[13]. An affected well is located within an easement on Wallops main base property[14]. NASA's 2019 published preliminary assessment, lists ten suspected contamination sources of PFAS chemicals with seven of them related to the use of AFFF. Records show that for around 30 years, its likely residents of Chincoteague had been exposed between 5-10 times the federal recommendation[10].

Distrust grew between affected individuals and NASA Wallops and the Chincoteague Town Council. The American Federation of Government Employees Local Union in 2017 requested an epidemiological study and biomonitoring of residents to gauge the impact PFAS had on locals[15]. This request was denied due to a lack of PFAS contamination in surrounding wells. Richard Hooks, a NASA employee, is among the union members who sent a whistleblower letter about the contamination[14]. "The town and NASA have not really been honest with people that there's a possibility they've been exposed to these chemicals" said Hooks[14]. NASA Union members were denied participation in meetings that discussed the contamination[15]. When the Accomack County Board of Supervisors was informed of the PFAS levels, Supervisor Chesser asked if residents would be notified of findings and was met with "That's a NASA question"[16]. When pressing further, Chesser mentioned that "It would be a courtesy to the people around there to give them a heads up".

A plan was put in place to pump in excess drinking water for the town as NASA Wallops cleans the wells[13]. A carbon treatment system installed by NASA allowed for Chincoteague to resume well usage in 2021[10]. Construction on a new pipeline and well from Wallops main base to Chincoteague began in early 2022[10].

Access to public information is a problem to the PFAS crisis in Chincoteague. While possibly not the only public outreach event, the most recent was in August of 2022 to discuss their wastewater treatment plant. In 2018, the Chincoteague drinking water quality report failed to inform residences about PFAS contamination despite being aware[14]. The current 2021 report mentions PFAS however does not mention current contaminant levels[17]. Links were provided to NASA Wallops page where users have to search through arduous PDFs to find data. The use of complicated jargon in reports published by Wallops makes information difficult to understand. In their 207 page publication NASA uses over 60 acronyms, many of which are similar[13]. Their website is similar with lots of information however not user friendly[18]. First-hand information published by NASA Wallops or the town of Chincoteague relating to the contaminated wells is also difficult to find online. Broken links to PDF files containing further information are riddled across older news sources. For those without internet access, this may be even more difficult. 37% of the residents of Chincoteague are 65 or older, putting them at a disadvantage of finding information as they prefer traditional mass media[19][20].     

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

Due to their extremely stable carbon-fluorine bonds, PFAS pose a significant threat to humans and to the environment. Both short and long chain PFAS are incredibly persistent and environmentally mobile, and can lead to cancer and suppressed immune system response in humans, especially children. Case studies involving 3M and NASA Wallops prove that PFAS are simply not just a future threat, they have been impacting real people for decades.

Future additions to this casebook chapter could include a more detailed study of the laws governing PFAS exposure in the US, especially as this legislation continues to develop. The perspectives of legislators and companies currently using PFAS in production, any new scientific research found about the dangers of PFAS, or more case studies of communities impacted by PFAS would also be welcome and appreciated.

Resources[edit | edit source]

  1. Kissa, E. (2001). Fluorinated surfactants and repellents (2). Google Scholar.
  2. Ivy, D. J.; Rigby, M.; Baasandorj, M.; Burkholder, J. B.; Prinn, R. G. (2012). Global emission estimates and radiative impact of C4F10, C5F12, C6F14, C7F16 and C8F18. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 12 (16), 7635-7645. DOI: 10.5194/acp-12-7635-2012.
  3. Universiteit Van Amsterdam. (2013). PERFOOD Report Summary. Google Scholar.
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  5. Grandjean, P.; Andersen, E. W.; Budtz-Jorgensen, E.; Nielsen, F.; Molbak, K.; Weihe, P.; Heilmann, C. (2012). Serum vaccine antibody concentrations in children exposed to perfluorinated compounds. JAMA, J. Am. Med. Assoc. 307 (4), 391– 7. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2011.2034.
  6. Russell, M. H.; Nilsson, H.; Buck, R. C. (2013). Elimination kinetics of perfluorohexanoic acid in humans and comparison with mouse, rat and monkey. Chemosphere. 93 (10), 2419-25. DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2013.08.060.
  7. Hopkins, Z. R.; Sun, M.; DeWitt, J. C.; Knappe, D. R. U. (2018). Recently Detected Drinking Water Contaminants: GenX and Other Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Ether Acids. Water Works Assoc. 110 (7), 13- 28. DOI: 10.1002/awwa.1073.
  8. South Australia Environmental Protection Agency. (2019). Transitioning to fluorine-free firefighting foam. https://www.epa.sa.gov.au/environmental_info/perfluorinated-compounds. Google Scholar.
  9. Council of the European Union. (2020). Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the quality of water intended for human consumption (recast); General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union. Google Scholar.
  10. a b c d Jaime, K. (2022). Chincoteague likely had PFAS in drinking water for years. What's changing to make it safe. Salisbury Daily Times. https://www.delmarvanow.com/story/news/local/virginia/2022/09/07/nasa-wallops-makes-changes-with-pfas-chincoteague-drinking-water/65466619007/.
  11. 3M. (2022). 3M's Commitment to PFAS Stewardship. 3M in the United States. https://www.3m.com/3M/en_US/pfas-stewardship-us/pfas-history/
  12. Cannon, C., & Kary, T. (2018, November 2). Cancer-linked chemicals created by 3M could be in your groundwater. Bloomberg. https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-3M-groundwater-pollution-problem/
  13. a b c d e Preliminary Assessment and Site Investigation Work Plan for Per – and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances at Goddard Space Flight Center Wallops Flight Facility Wallops Island, Virginia . (2019, March). https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/final_nasa_wff_pfas_pa-si_wp.pdf.
  14. a b c d Rentsch, J. (2020, January 23). Chincoteague drinking water: Feds to investigate if it's been contaminated for decades. Delmarva Now. https://www.delmarvanow.com/story/news/2019/12/16/feds-investigate-longtime-pfas-contamination-chincoteague-water/4408430002/
  15. a b Morrison, C. (2019, December 5). More pfas investigations for chincoteague water supply. Eastern Shore Post. https://easternshorepost.com/2019/12/05/more-pfas-investigations-for-chincoteague-water-supply/
  16. Vaughn, C. (2017, May 9). Chemical found in Wells that supply Chincoteague Drinking Water. Delmarva Now. https://www.delmarvanow.com/story/news/2017/05/09/chemical-chincoteague-drinking-water/314490001/
  17. Town of Chincoteague Waterworks. (2021). 2021 Annual Drinking Water Quality Report. https://chincoteague-va.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/06/CCR-CY21-3001175.May2022.pdf
  18. Eggers, J. (2022, June 15). Background, Latest Information on PFAS at NASA Wallops. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/feature/background-latest-information-on-pfas-at-nasa-wallops/
  19. U.S. Census Bureau (2020). American Community Survey 5-year estimates. Retrieved from Census Reporter Profile page for Chincoteague, VA http://censusreporter.org/profiles/16000US5116512-chincoteague-va/
  20. Nimrod, G. (2016). Older audiences in the digital media environment. Information, Communication & Society, 20(2), 233–249. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118x.2016.1164740