The Chemicals in Your Raincoat…and Your Potatoes

They make carpets stain-resistant and water slide off raincoats. They’re in microwave popcorn bags and upholstery, household dust, potatoes and milk. Wax your skis? They’re in the wax–and probably in the skis too. In the industrialized world perflourinated chemicals, PFCs, are nearly impossible to escape. And unfortunately, the properties that make them so excellent at repelling stains and grease and water are also what make them latch on to the proteins in our blood and persist for years in our bodies and soil.

And those properties are also what make them dangerous. Two decades worth of studies have linked PFOAs to thyroid disease, early menopause and delayed puberty, lowered immune response and effects on sperm, as well as a number of cancers.

But regulation has been slow in coming. The EPA has been toying with adopting rules for over a decade, and only in May of 2016 did the agency issue a health advisory level for the compound, at 0.07 parts per billion-despite much evidence that suggests far lower levels may have adverse health effects. And although a 2016 report from the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University uncovered PFCs in the drinking water of 15 million Americans in 27 states, the EPA has not added the chemicals to the list of drinking water contaminants.

Limited testing was conducted nationwide in 2012 after the agency included the PFCs in its third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, but tests were only conducted on water systems serving 10,000 or more customers, meaning many rural areas may have gone untested.

PFCs have been around since the 1940s, and have been linked with potential health problems since at least 1981–the year the company 3M, which supplied PFOA to DuPont and other companies, found that it caused birth defects in rats, according to reporting by the New York Times.

And although eight major companies agreed to voluntarily phase out the production of PFCs by 2015, the compounds are still produced worldwide, with potentially contaminated products being imported into the United States. And many companies are simply replacing PFCs with similar compounds, for which little safety testing exists.

For decades, DuPont hid numerous studies that found high levels of the chemical in the blood of workers and in the environment, as well as their links with potential eye defects in children of DuPont workers. The company and its spinoff, Chemours, settled for $670.7 million in February of this year with 3,550 plaintiffs who filed suit against the company after it contaminated the air, ground and water near its Parkersburg, West Virginia plant.

Perfluorinated compounds are in all of us: a 2011 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey found PFOA, a type of PFC, in the serum of 99.9% of the study’s 2100 participants, and a similar NHANES study a decade earlier found “significantly higher” levels in children.

“… Human exposure to PFOA has been ongoing for decades,” write the authors of a 2010 literature review on the subject.

PFOAs have shown up in breast milk, formula and cord blood, likely from mothers who drank or prepared formula from contaminated water.

PFOAs in groundwater have been most recently reported in New Hampshire, where residents have filed two class action lawsuits against plastics manufacturer Saint-Gobain.

The suits were filed after testing in three towns showed 27 percent of private wells tested had levels of PFOAs above 0.1 parts per billion, according to reporting by the New Hampshire Sunday News. This is 0.03 parts per billion higher than the Health Advisory issued by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2016. Residents near the plant have been provided free bottled water by Saint-Gobain, and the state continues to test in the area around the plant.

Similar cases have arisen in Washington State and Colorado, where the state is considering its own regulation after an air force base outside of Colorado Springs was found to have contaminated the drinking water of thousands of residents. The Senate recently approved funding for a study of military service members exposed to PFC at several bases, and researchers from Harvard and the University of Rhode Island are undertaking a five-year study of PFC contamination in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

PFC contamination at sites in York and Sanford, along with the two recent suits filed against Saint-Gobain in New Hampshire and contamination throughout New England suggest that this problem is likely not limited to Southern Maine.

In Maine, where around 40 percent of families rely on private well water, this issue could be particularly resonant. Private well owners are not required to test for any substances, and many don’t: fewer than half of families with private wells report testing for arsenic, according to the Maine Tracking Network. An average of seventeen percent of private well owners have never conducted any well testing. And even if they did, perfluorinated chemicals are not included in Maine’s normal panel of testing.

In May of 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a “Health Advisory” for PFO and PFOA levels above 0.07 parts per billion. Health advisorys are guidelines-they do not require states or agencies to do any testing for the advisory chemicals, nor does this mean the chemicals are added to drinking water regulations. “HAs serve as informal technical guidance to assist federal, state and local officials, as well as managers of public or community water systems in protecting public health. They are not regulations and should not be construed as legally enforceable federal standards,” wrote the Agency in a note on the PFO(A) advisory in May of 2016.

The ability of PFCs to persist in groundwater and travel great distances poses particular logistical challenges for regulators and researchers: in West Virginia and Ohio, the chemical was found in wells 20 miles away from the contaminant site. A case in Ohio found the highest concentration of PFOAs in the last six miles of a 35 mile stretch, the furthest from the contaminated site.

An analysis using data from the Maine Office of GIS and a list of plastics fabrication companies compiled from Google Maps returns a list of 382 private wells and 24 public well systems within one mile of a plastics fabrication company in Maine. Additional analysis of landfill remediation sites, another potential source of contamination of PFCs, returns 3,988 private wells within one mile.

All of these are likely underestimates-the list maintained by the Maine Office of GIS puts the private well count in Maine at 61,192. If 40 percent of Maine citizens get their water from a private well the list should be somewhere around 600,000-or, accounting for families, at least 150,000 wells. Sparsely populated rural areas and private wells do not meet the EPA’s criteria for testing of public water systems serving above 10,000 inhabitants, meaning that it is unlikely any testing for perfluorinated chemicals has been done in most of these places.