Over the last half-century, PFAS chemicals have been added to the formulation of innumerable products we use on a daily basis. The manufacture and disposal of these products releases them to our environment, where they can get into our food and water. Unfortunately for us, they can be harmful to our health, and they don’t biodegrade. These “forever chemicals” have become pervasive in our lives.
Host Intro-David Fair (DF): This is 89-1 WEMU and I'm David Fair. Welcome to this month's edition of "The Green Room." As we found in Part I of a five-part series, the health impacts of “Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” or PFAS, are becoming an increasing concern. In Part II, of “The Green Room” series on PFAS, Barbara Lucas explores products that may use these chemicals in their formulation.
Barbara Lucas (BL): In 2014, PFAS chemicals were found in the Huron River, and in the City of Ann Arbor’s drinking water. So Ann Arbor’s water treatment plant installed a filtration system to remove them. They test the drinking water every two weeks for 24 different PFAS substances. Results are now well below the federal and proposed State of Michigan health advisory levels.
Water bottle being opened.
BL: If we want our drinking water to be totally PFAS-free, should we switch to bottled water? Unless the bottled water company can guarantee they regularly test for a variety of PFAS chemicals, maybe not. Contrary to assumptions, bottled water is not required to be tested for PFAS chemicals. Some states are taking matters into their own hands. Last month, New Hampshire tested a random sampling of water sold in supermarkets, and found PFAS above the federal advisory. It was in a bottled spring water sold throughout New England. This prompted some states to issue warnings, and the source bottler to fold.
People eating in a restaurant.
BL: As for our food, evidence is emerging that PFAS chemicals are in some of that as well. Here’s Dr. Rebecca Meuninck, Deputy Director of the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center.
Rebecca Mueninck: Some of the foods that came up were things like meat products and dairy products.
BL: She’s referring to a federal Food and Drug Administration study.
Mueninck: And they even tested chocolate cake, which is such a bummer.
BL: In June, the Associated Press reported that the FDA also found PFAS in samples of green leafy vegetables purchased from a farmer’s market out east. They were grown near a PFAS manufacturing plant. A call to the State of Michigan confirmed the state has not tested any of Michigan’s food or bottled water. Some feel testing is crucial.
Mueninck: We don't want to have the same thing happen that's been happening in places like Maine or New Mexico, where you have dairy farmers going out of business because their herds are contaminated with very high levels of PFAS chemicals, because of the treatment with sewage sludge, or contamination of the cows drinking water.
BL: Sewage sludge? Mueninck says it’s common practice to apply it to farm fields, for fertilizer.
Mueninck: So sewage sludge and human bio-solids are contaminated because we as humans are contaminated with those chemicals, and the water that we use in our homes… and there are restrooms and things like that are also contaminated.
BL: Sewage sludge is the byproduct that’s left after wastewater treatment plants filter our wastewater—not only human wastewater, but waste from industry, and leachate from landfills. It concentrates the “forever chemicals,” from both the creation and disposal of the innumerable PFAS-containing products we’ve come to rely on.
Fire hose demonstration.
BL: And then there’s PFAS-containing firefighting foam. I’m at the City of Ann Arbor Fire House, getting a demonstration of their delivery system for smothering a fuel fire with foam. Here’s Lieutenant Craig Ferris.
Lieutenant Craig Ferris: We can form this bubbling foam blanket…
BL: Ann Arbor’s fire department recently discontinued the use of PFAS-containing foam, after being alerted to the potential health impacts by Ann Arbor’s water department.
Ferris: This is our new firefighting foam, that does not have any PFAS in it, and obviously much safer and better to use.
BL: They’re trailblazers. Using PFAS-containing fire suppressant has been standard practice. In fact. they’ve been used for 50 years during trainings at military sites, which have some of the worst PFAS contaminations in the country—Oscoda, Michigan being a case in point. But the problem goes far beyond firefighting foam.
Fade out firehouse sounds.
BL: PFAS chemicals can add highly useful attributes like non-stick, and stain-, water-, and grease-resistance. They’re in consumer products from pans to microwave popcorn bags.
BL: Here’s Evan Pratt, Washtenaw County’s Water Resources Commissioner.
Evan Pratt: This stuff is everywhere. Even the sampling protocol you use to take a water sample…
BL: He says testing water for PFAS is a whole new ball game.
Pratt: You can't wear Goretex, you can't use a Ziploc bag, you can't wear the same type of rubber gloves that you would wear when doing other water sampling. Those are typical protocols that are used, and that doesn't work because there's traces of PFAS in all of those things I just named, apparently.
BL: The EPA webpage of instructions for PFAS water testing includes many other potential sources of contamination. To name a few: Don’t wear cosmetics, lotions, or insect repellant, as some brands could contain PFAS. Avoid clothing laundered in fabric-softener. Don’t wear water-resistant clothes or shoes.
Wrapper being opened.
BL: Avoid fast food wrappers, or wrappers for chips, candy, energy bars. Even self-stick notes. Awareness of the list of products PFAS might be found in keeps growing. The Ecology Center in Ann Arbor tested two products babies come in contact with regularly: car seats and carpeting. Half of all of the samples tested, contained traces of PFAS. Meanwhile, PFAS chemicals are not prohibited in products. It’s basically “buyer beware.”
BL: I’m picking up takeout for a potluck picnic—it’s in a compostable container.
Sounds of a picnic.
BL: Here at the picnic, we’re using compostable plates. Renewable and compostable is good, right? But turns out, there’s a problem. Here’s Dr. Meuninck.
Mueninck: This particular fiber-based compostable material is treated with PFAS chemicals to give it that water resistance and grease resistance that you would need.
BL: She says manufacturers of compostables are hoping to phase out use of PFAS chemicals by 2021, so they don’t contaminate compost and make their way into food.
Fade out picnic.
BL: So how can consumers find out what contains PFAS? If you’re lucky enough to find a full ingredient list on the label, the Environmental Working Group says to look for Fluoro—F.L.U.O.R.O—as part of the chemical’s name. They also say to avoid anything that says "PTFE,” which is used to make Teflon. Surprisingly, turns out Teflon is in a lot more than pans. It’s in Goretex, even my favorite dental floss!
Floss being pulled from dispenser.
BL: Until recently, Teflon was my go-to cookware.
Crackling fry pan.
BL: I’ve eaten food cooked in it pretty much my whole life. Should I be worried? Here’s Dr. Detlef Knappe of North Carolina State University.
Detlef Knappe: It is not so much that people should be concerned about the PFAS exposure from using a Teflon pan, but when that Teflon pan gets made, there are emissions of fluoro-chemicals into the environment.
BL: Not contributing to emissions of flouro-chemicals into our environment, can be a challenge for consumers, and for industry. In trying to track down PFAS-free raingear, I corresponded with the research and development company Patagonia is working with. So far, no luck in finding equally good replacements. They say, quote: “What is available today is a compromise (performance wise).”
Rain and thunder.
BL: That’s maybe not so important for a raincoat, but performance can be critical in other applications. Here’s Ann Arbor’s Fire Chief Michael Kennedy.
Michael Kennedy: We're finding that this product is in other firefighting things such as are protective gear… now there's a concern of long term health exposure. And there's a lot more questions and answers regarding that right now. …We can't change things until we have alternatives. And in our line of work, if you're going into environments that are instantly lethal. We have to know something's going to work.
BL: While there’s a lot of uncertainty about how dangerous trace amounts of PFAS chemicals are, one thing’s for sure: the more products you look into, the more you find.
In “The Green Room,” I’m Barbara Lucas, 89 One, WEMU News.
David Fair: For upcoming segments on where these “forever chemicals” are being found and what we can do about this escalating problem, stay tuned for further episodes in our 5-part Green Room series on your community NPR station, 89.1 WEMU.
All of the City of Ann Arbor’s testing data is available at www.qualitywatermatters.org.
“Some Bottled Water Brands Have Concerning PFAS Levels, Massachusetts Regulator Warns: Pregnant women, nursing mothers, and infants should not consume the water, an advisory says,” Consumer Reports, July 12, 2019.
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