Contamination from toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” is much more widespread than limited testing indicates, and “should be presumed” at tens of thousands more airports, industrial facilities and downstream wastewater treatment plants across the U.S., according to a new study.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, concluded that incomplete data from federal reporting loopholes, uncounted firefighting foam discharges and untested sludge from wastewater treatment plants have led to a massive undercount of potential PFAS contamination sites, potentially exposing people living near those sites to increased cancer risk and other health issues.
That means that many more Hoosiers living near or downstream from dozens of industrial sites, military installations or solid waste landfills could be facing PFAS exposure and potential contamination.
The study authors used existing data from confirmed PFAS contamination sites to develop a model to find PFAS contamination. Based on that model, 57,412 sites in the U.S. “can be presumed” to be likely sources of PFAS contamination.
"While it sounds scary that there are over 57,000 presumptive contamination sites, this is almost certainly a large underestimation," said Phil Brown, director of Northeastern University's Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute and co-author of the paper. "The scope of PFAS contamination is immense, and communities impacted by this contamination deserve swift regulatory action that stops ongoing and future uses of PFAS while cleaning up already existing contamination.”
That could mean more than 150 industrial sites and dozens of solid waste disposal facilities, military facilities and civilian airports could pose a threat to the health of Hoosiers.
PFAS HEALTH RISKS
PFAS chemicals are a group of synthetic chemicals that have been used since the 1940s to make products that are resistant to water, heat, grease and stains. Many are known by their brand names, like Teflon, Gore-Tex and Scotchgard.
More than 9,000 PFAS chemicals currently exist, but few have been studied extensively. Those that have been studied thoroughly, like PFOA and PFOS, have been linked to an increased risk of developing kidney or testicular cancer, liver and kidney damage, increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, decreased vaccine response in children and other health conditions.
The chemicals are also known as “forever chemicals” due to their ability to remain in the environment without breaking down. That persistence has allowed the chemicals to travel around the world, from Indiana tap water to Antarctic rainfall.
PFAS chemicals have been found in the blood of 97% of Americans and can remain in the human body for at least five years after they enter.
A PRODUCT OF THE ATOMIC AGE
The first PFAS chemical, polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, was discovered in 1938 by a scientist at E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. while working with gases related to refrigerants.
The chemical was found to be extremely slippery, as its molecular bonds are so strong that other atoms cannot break in and are forced to slide across the surface. PTFE would also not dissolve in acetone, ether or concentrated sulfuric acid.
During World War II, PTFE was the only material corrosion-resistant enough to be used in seals and gaskets at a plant that produced weapons-grade uranium for the Manhattan Project, the U.S. research project that created the world’s first nuclear weapons.
After the war, PTFE was used to make civilian products, like Teflon pans and Gore-Tex clothing. Other companies, like 3M Co., followed suit and made their own PFAS chemicals. In the 1950s, 3M created PFOA and PFOS for use in Scotchgard and a potent firefighting foam known as aqueous film forming foam.
PTFE has been to the moon, and its successors are on Mars.
Over decades, thousands more PFAS chemicals were created and used by multiple industries, including aerospace, communications, electronics, industrial processes and many others.
INDIANA’S PFAS PRESENCE
No official list of PFAS contamination sites in Indiana exists, but, according to the study, many industries use or have used PFAS chemicals in their products.
The chemicals are largely unregulated but are used in common items, like cosmetics and school uniforms, and in products manufactured in the state.
The study researchers identified the industrial facilities most likely to have PFAS contamination across the nation. In Indiana, at least 158 industrial facilities that have submitted pollution data to the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory fit the criteria:
26 electroplating, plating, polishing, anodizing and coloring facilities. PFAS have been used in metal plating since the 1950s. They are used as fume suppressants added to metal plating and finishing baths to prevent the escape of toxic metal fumes.
20 metal coating, engraving and allied services to manufacturers facilities, which, like plating facilities, use PFAS chemicals in protective coatings for metals.
Two basic organic chemical manufacturing facilities where PFAS products are made, along with 16 miscellaneous chemical product and preparation manufacturing facilities and 10 chemical products merchant wholesaler facilities.
12 paint and coating manufacturing facilities, which produce coatings containing PFAS for military and industrial products. Some companies, like Nanochem Technologies LLC in Elkhart, use PFAS polymers, called fluoropolymers, to coat industrial materials, while others, like NCP Coatings LLS in Mishawaka, coat military vehicles with PFAS chemicals like p-Cholorobenzotrifuoride, or PCBTF.
Three paper bag and coated and treated paper manufacturing facilities. The 3M Co.’s Hartford City plant has been suspected of being a source of PFAS contamination affecting local waterways. The plant manufactures adhesive tapes, some of which are made from PFAS chemicals.
Seven commercial printing facilities, which can use printing inks and paper coatings containing PFAS, and one non-newspaper paper mill. The New-Indy Containerboard Hartford City Mill uses recycled containerboard, which can contain PFAS chemicals applied elsewhere, to produce new containerboard.
Two petroleum refineries, in Whiting and Mount Vernon, which historically used PFAS firefighting foam to put out fires, and 10 petroleum lubricating oil and grease manufacturing sites.
Other facilities where products are made with PFAS include those where polish and sanitation products are made, as well as facilities manufacturing unlaminated plastics film and sheets, electronic components, metal products, paper board, soap and other goods.
AIRPORTS AND OTHER PFAS FOAM RELEASE SITES
The report also counts military installations and both military and civilian airports where PFAS firefighting foam may have been discharged.
PFAS contamination was reported at the state’s two major installations, Grissom Air Reserve Base and Naval Support Activity Crane.
Samples of parts of Grissom Air Reserve Base revealed PFOS levels 5.7 million times the EPA’s lifetime health advisory for PFOS and 4.5 million times the advisory for PFOA. At Crane, the highest detected 21,400 times and nearly 9,000 times the PFOS and PFOA advisories, respectively.
PFAS were also detected in ground water at several Indiana National Guard installations, including Camp Atterbury, Fort Wayne Air National Guard Base, Hulman Air National Guard Base and Shelbyville Army Aviation Support Facility.
The Indiana National Guard said it was waiting on information for the Gary Army Aviation Support Facility, and that a remedial investigation was possible at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center.
Most, if not all, the PFAS detected at military sites were due to the release of PFAS firefighting foam.
The FAA required licensed airports to use PFAS firefighting foam until Oct. 4, 2021, when it issued an alert dropping the requirement as part of a Congressional mandate in a 2018 law. The FAA still has not fully approved any non-PFAS firefighting foams for use in high-heat fuel fires, so at least U.S. 300 airports in the U.S. continue to use PFAS firefighting foam, according to the Airports Council International-North America.
The Indiana Legislature banned the use of PFAS firefighting foam during training in 2020, except under limited circumstances. IDEM and the Indiana Department of Homeland Security set up a program to collect the foam from fire departments across the state. The program has collected more than 22,000 gallons so far, nearly 90% of the state’s PFAS foam.
Effluent from industrial sites and sites where AFFF was used has made its way into waterways.
In a recent analysis by the Waterkeeper Alliance of waterways in 34 states, not including Indiana, researchers detected the presence of PFAS chemicals in 85% of sampled waterways.
Those rivers and streams are the sources for drinking water that end up in people’s food and drinks.
In Indiana, limited testing by IDEM has detected PFAS in the untreated water of 13 medium-sized water systems throughout the state. IDEM also found PFAS in the treated water, or the water that comes out of your faucet, in 10 community water systems.
IDEM will conduct two more phases of testing to find out the extent of contamination in public water systems for the 18 chemicals.
The sampling does not indicate the sources of the contamination or the presence of any of the other thousands of PFAS chemicals outside the parameters of the sampling.
Another source of PFAS contamination according to the study is sites related to the sludge and effluent captured by wastewater treatment plants, like agricultural land and landfills.
The state allows the use of biosolids, industrial waste products and pollutant-bearing water on agricultural land as a cheap and nutrient-rich soil amendment or fertilizer. State law places limits on the amount of heavy metals in the waste products used but does not regulate the amount of PFAS present, potentially allowing the chemicals to seep into soil and crops.
UNREGULATED FOREVER CHEMICALS
PFAS chemicals and subsequent contamination have spread largely due to their being unregulated and unreported for decades.
Congress recently ordered the EPA to add 180 PFAS chemicals to the Toxics Release Inventory, which requires manufacturers to track and report certain chemicals it makes, processes, uses or releases above a certain amount.
Beginning in 2020, manufacturers and importers of more than 100 pounds of those PFAS chemicals have to file TRI reports for those chemicals.
A loophole put in place during the Trump administration allows companies to skip the report if PFAS amounts are considered “negligible,” or less than 1% of a total mixture. The loophole allows companies to dilute PFAS mixtures or products in order to avoid reporting their PFAS use.
The EPA told The Guardian it has begun the regulatory process to close the loophole.
Another loophole has allowed new and potentially harmful PFAS chemicals to enter the market.
An exemption in the Toxics Substances Control Act allows companies to skip a safety review required for new chemicals if the EPA determines that the chemical “will not present an unreasonable risk” to human health or the environment.
Groups like Earthjustice, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund and others argue that the exemption has allowed many toxic PFAS chemicals to be approved for use and that the health risks they pose are too great for the exemption to apply.
A coalition of 16 organizations has petitioned the EPA to close the TSCA loophole.
The Biden administration is cracking down on some of the most prominent PFAS chemicals.
The EPA said it will propose a national primary drinking water regulation for PFOA and PFOS by the end of 2022.
The agency has also proposed designating PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, also known as the Superfund law.
The designation would require companies to report releases of PFOA and PFOS above a certain amount and hold them responsible for cleanup costs if they are found liable for the release of the substance.
The designation could also allow the EPA to push back the closure of Superfund cleanups and reopen previously closed Superfund sites if either chemical is present.
Indiana’s PFAS future largely depends on what happens at the federal level due to state lawmakers preventing the passage of legislation that would set limits on PFAS releases.
For the last three years, Rep. Ryan Dvorak of South Bend has introduced a bill that would allow the Indiana Department of Health to establish a maximum contaminant level, the limit of how much of a certain chemical can be present in public water systems, for PFOA, PFOS and other PFAS chemicals. The bill would not be allowed to be stricter than limits set by the EPA.
The bills were assigned to the House Committee on Environmental Affairs, but have never been seriously considered.