Addressing the Sources of PFAS Contamination

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer

On Tuesday, September 29, Gavin Newsom signed into law a measure that bans a class of over 4,000 toxic chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from firefighting foams due to their impacts on human health.

This ban came weeks before a  peer-reviewed study by scientists at the Environmental Working Group estimated that more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water at a concentration of 1 part per trillion, or ppt, or higher.

Why This Matters: At least 7.5 million Californians—1 in 5— have PFAS in their drinking water, due in part to firefighting foams being used to stop wildfires. PFAS does not break down in the environment, spreads quickly, and bioaccumulates (which gives it its “forever chemical” moniker).  As such, there is more than 1 ppt of PFAS detected in California’s drinking water sources signaling a need for further regulation and understanding of this family of chemicals.

Why PFAS? As National Geographic wrote, PFAS has been used in commercial products since the 1940s.

  • It’s created by joining carbon and fluorine, one of the strongest bonds that can be made in organic chemistry.

  • It’s that bond that’s at the root of why PFAS chemicals are used to make everyday items resistant to moisture, heat, and stains.

  • Some of the most commonly used PFAS chemicals, like PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid) have long half-lives, earning them the moniker “the forever chemical.”

Even minuscule amounts of PFAS can have devastating consequences on the human body—the chemicals have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, thyroid disease, and more.

The people most under threat from PFAS? Firefighters. A study last year found that firefighters using PFAS foams had “unacceptably” high levels of PFAS in their blood —an unacceptable predicament given that firefighters are often from vulnerable populations, like inmates who are already risking their lives to put out wildfires for only a few dollars a day in compensation.

How will this affect how we fight fires?

California’s law now bans, selling and using PFAS foams by January 1, 2022. It also bans its use in training classes, and regulates the disposal of unused PFAS foams, with steep fines: $5,000 for a first violation and $10,000 for each subsequent violation.

Luckily, there are non-PFAS foams in use around the world. A study published last spring showed that there were over 100 PFAS-free foams meeting internationally accepted certifications.

California is joining both states and the Department of Defense in phasing out PFAS foams. Last year, Congress voted to discontinue PFAS foams in military firefighting foams by 2024. Likewise in 2018,  Congress ordered the Federal Aviation Administration, to ban airports from using PFAS foams to fight fires. However, no federal standard exists for regulating the use of PFAS or for ongoing testing of water. As such states have had to lead the charge on such rulemaking. 

Colorado, New Hampshire, New York, and Washington initially banned PFAS in firefighting foam, and hopefully, other states will follow suit.

Eliminating PFAS from drinking water will be a complicated process. Researchers are developing technology to help this process but the federal government must do its part in supporting and funding an adequate national response.

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