Blog  /  August 2018  /  What Is the Big Deal with PFOS and PFOA (PFAS)?

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Recently you have read articles about the dangers of PFAS in our drinking water.  Some states have set maximum contaminant levels (MCL) and issued public health advisories for the contaminant in drinking water.  On June 20th, 2018, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) published long-awaited health standards on 14 chemicals in the PFAS family.  ATSDR’s 852-page report stated there is growing evidence of a link between PFAS chemicals and ill health, and that most studies focus on PFOS and PFOA.

What Are PFOS and PFOA?

Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) are fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).  PFAS have been extensively produced and studied in the US.  These man-made substances have been synthesized for water and lipid resistance.  They have been used extensively in consumer products such as carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food, and other materials (e.g., cookware) designed to be waterproof, stain-resistant, or nonstick.  In addition, they have been used in aqueous firefighting foam (AFFF).


How Are We Exposed to PFAS?

People are exposed to PFOS and PFOA through food, food packaging, consumer products, house dust, and drinking water.  Exposure through drinking water has become an increasing concern due to the tendency of PFAS to accumulate in groundwater.  Such contamination is typically localized and associated with a specific facility – for example, an industrial facility where these chemicals were manufactured or used in other products, or airfields which used the chemicals for firefighting.  Between 2000 and 2002, PFOS were voluntarily phased out of production in the US by its primary manufacturer.  Beginning in 2006, other manufacturers began to voluntarily limit the number of ongoing uses.  The Department of Defense identified 401 military sites with known or suspected PFAS contamination due to the use of AFFF.


What Are the Health Concerns with PFAS?

In May 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) issued a lifetime health advisory for PFOS and PFOA for drinking water, advising municipalities they should notify their customers of the presence of levels over 70 parts per trillion in community water supplies.  The US EPA recommended that the notification of customers include information on the increased risk to health, especially for susceptible populations.

According to the EPA Fact Sheet, “These studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), thyroid effects, and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).”


What Action Should Be Taken?

A strategy to identify and manage legacy PFAS contamination needs to be developed carefully on a case by case basis to address the associated regulatory, environmental, and human health risks.  To support this process, targeted technical and legal advice may be required.


Who Should Pay for the Contamination Cleanup?

The manufacturers of this cancer-causing chemical have known for decades the damage they have inflicted on the public.  They should be required to pay for the damages to the groundwater that they have affected.  Polluters should pay for the cleanup.  Cost recovery litigation is something that anyone challenged with PFAS issues should seek.


Bill Kelly is a veteran water industry leader with a broad range of business and utilities experience.  As CEO and COO of Lucid Energy Inc., he helped right size a hydroelectric equipment startup for future funding in Portland, Oregon. He is most known for his work starting up Isle Utilities in North America.  As the President, he was responsible for establishing the US operations by working with the top 50 water utilities.  Isle Utilities helps connect innovative early-stage technologies with end users.  He has also served as a Senior Advisor at SkyH2O and Clean Power Capital.