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Issues Of The Environment: New Year's Resolutions On Hazardous Chemicals

Jan 2, 2019

Gillian Miller, senior scientist at healthystuff.org
Credit Healthy Stuff / healthystuff.org

2019 has officially begun, and it's time to make some resolutions on how to handle dangerous chemicals, like PFAS.  In this week's "Issues of the Environment," WEMU's David Fair talks to Gillian Miller, senior scientist at healthystuff.org, about some tips to make 2019 a more ecologically friendly year.


Overview

  • 2018 has been a year of tocsins about the dangers of unregulated hazardous chemicals, in our environment and in our homes.  From PFAS in the water where we swim and fish, to BPA in plastics and shopping receipts, to pesticides in breakfast cereal, flame retardants in our children's car seats, and lead in their toys, it has been overwhelming.
  • New Year’s resolutions to support change at the many different levels are one way to turn that despair into positive action.
  • Gillian Miller, Senior Scientist, HealthyStuff.org, says that perhaps the most important first step is to put pressure on businesses to change, rather than waiting for regulation and policy to force that change.  A resolution to support nonprofits (like the Ecology Center, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, your local Watershed Council and many more...) are an effective way to put pressure on businesses to make changes on their own.  These types of watchdog organizations conduct research, test products, and disseminate information about the safety of chemicals in the public marketplace.
  • The federal government moves slowly even when political will is favorable toward change.  Making a resolution to actively support measures that regulate environmentally hazardous substances at the state and local government level can be an effective way to see change in our communities.  Gillian says, “Know who your Michigan representative and senator are, not just your U.S. congresspeople.  Tell those state reps what matters to you, and follow them so you can voice your support or opposition for bills related to, say PFAS contamination or lead or pesticides. “
  • Finally, rather than tackle every possible route of exposure, pick one or several specific actions you can take to limit your contact with toxic substances.  This could mean purchasing a reverse osmosis filter for your drinking water (currently, RO filters are the best technology for removing PFAS from drinking water, see below), washing your hands more frequently to remove the chemicals they pick up, or resolving to use glass over plastic when possible.
  • Gillian Miller, Senior Scientist, HealthyStuff.org, says that people who have adopt these strategies play an important role in changing how businesses make policies on toxic substances.  She says, “For example, our periodic studies on flame retardant chemicals in child car seats has led to first one, then three, and now even more car seat companies developing flame retardant-free car seats.  They also influence how state and local lawmakers are educated and take action in their communities in terms of regulation and the cleanup of contamination.

Levels of action to reduce hazardous chemicals in our environment and bodies in the near and far future

Direct from Gillian Miller (in order of importance):

1.    Pressure businesses to change.  Support nonprofits that use this strategy.  Ecology Center and many of our partners around the country successfully do this.  For example, our periodic studies on FR chemicals in child car seats has led to first one, then 3, and now even more car seat companies developing FR-free car seats.  Currently, we are strategizing about how to use the market campaign model to get PFAS out of products they don't need to be in -- child car seats, for one, and carpet and furniture and others for stain- and waterproofing.  Without stopping the flow of PFAS at its sources, we are going to keep having crises like we're having now with the discovery of these chemicals in watersheds.

2. Get politically engaged at the state level.  A lot of environmental and human health protections actually happen in the state legislature.  Know who your Michigan representative and senator are, not just your U.S. congresspeople.  Tell those state reps what matters to you, and follow them so you can voice your support or opposition for bills related to, say PFAS contamination or lead or pesticides.  We need to prohibit the use of PFAS firefighting foam for training purposes.  And PFAS mist suppressants must not be allowed in facilities that do chrome plating.  There are also state-level discussions now about lowering the maximum level of PFAS allowed in drinking water.

3. In the new year, if you're not already a supporter of a local nonprofit that works for a healthier environment, how about choosing one and engaging or supporting in some way?  Nonprofits that do market campaigns. Also, nonprofits like ours help cities write procurement policies; in fact we recently helped Ann Arbor adopt one of the most progressive around regarding products that contain PFAS.  If you're particularly alarmed about water contamination, find a local watershed council or perhaps a state-based group working on water.

4. Limiting personal exposure to PFAS if it's in your water: update on filter options.

5. To limit your own exposure especially indoors: clean up dust and wash your hands.  Simple as it gets, and scientific research shows these measures reduce our intake of chemicals like phthalates, BPA, and BPS, flame retardant chemicals.

Best Strategies for Removing PFAS and other Toxins from Water at Home

Gillian says, “For personal water filter info, the upshot is that reverse osmosis systems work most consistently to reduce PFAS, not only the well-known PFOA and PFOS (C8 compounds) but shorter chain and other forms as well.  Activated charcoal filters (like Brita or some such) can work quite well but some brands don't perform as well. Therefore it would be wise to get a filter certified by NSF International for removal of PFOA and PFOS.  The certification doesn't cover other PFAS chemicals but it's the best we have at present.  There's a decent chance that if the filters are effective for the C8 compounds they will be at least somewhat effective for other PFAS.”

Points to note are:

  • Whole-house filtration has the downside of taking out disinfectant, leaving your plumbing vulnerable to bacterial growth. Point-of-use filters like those installed on a tap avoid this risk.
  • Filters that remove PFAS must be changed on schedule to keep their effectiveness. Otherwise, the filter gets saturated and the chemicals you want to avoid come through.

Home Water Filtration: What are the Best Options?

In September, Environmental Working Group posted this article summarizing what we know about home filters: The family of fluorinated compounds known as PFAS chemicals includes more than 4,700 chemicals – some linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity and developmental defects, and others whose health effects are unknown.  One thing’s for sure: You don’t want them in your body.

Drinking water is one of the most common sources of exposure.  PFAS chemicals could contaminate the drinking water for 110 million Americans nationwide.  EWG’s interactive map shows areas of known contamination.  If you know or suspect these chemicals are in your tap water, the best way to protect yourself is by installing an in-home water filter.  But which kind?

Based on information from state health agencies, testing labs, scientific researchers and water filter companies, the most effective choice for in-home treatment of PFAS-tainted tap water is a reverse osmosis filter, followed by an activated carbon filter – a slightly lower-cost option.

But many questions remain unanswered.  More research is urgently needed to better understand how to ensure removal of the many types of PFAS compounds.  To help with your choice, below are details of what is currently known.

States Leading Response to PFAS Contamination Crisis

The Environmental Protection Agency has set a health advisory level for the two most-studied PFAS compounds in drinking water – PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard.  The advisory level is 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, for the two chemicals combined. But the best and most current scientific research says that’s much too high, and the EPA’s advisory level is not legally enforceable.  That’s why some states with extensive PFAS drinking water contamination are taking steps to set more health-protective limits or advisory levels.  For example, New Jersey has set a legal limit of 13 ppt for perfluorononanoic acid, or PFNA, and proposed enforceable limits of 14 ppt for PFOA and 13 ppt for both PFOS.  Other states such as Washington, Michigan, and North Carolina are conducting additional testing to further evaluate the extent of contamination in drinking water.

Some of these states have issued recommendations for water filters to remove PFOA and PFOS, including: Michigan; Minnesota; New Hampshire; New Jersey; and New York.

Guidance and factsheet documents from these states recommend two types of filters for removing PFAS chemicals: activated carbon and reverse osmosis.  The states provide information on the pluses and minuses of the two types, and tips on how to maintain them to ensure effective filtering. They also compare the two types of filter installations: “point of use,” which are installed under the kitchen sink or in the refrigerator, and “point of entry,” which treat the water for the whole house.  

Downside of Whole-House Filtration

In communities with the worst contamination, such as in Minnesota or Michigan, whole-house filtration is often used. It is effective, but expensive in comparison to point-of-use filtration and may not be necessary in most cases.  Further, since whole-house systems also remove chlorine, they may introduce additional risks of harmful bacterial growth in plumbing.

Filters Certified for PFAS Chemical Removal

NSF International, a testing and certification company, developed a certification standard for removal of PFOS and PFOA in 2016.  The certification requires that the filter reduce these two chemicals only to EPA’s health advisory level of 70 ppt.  Currently, 71 products from seven manufacturers are certified to meet this standard.

However, drinking water can contain other PFAS chemicals, sometimes at higher levels than PFOS and PFOA. PFOS and PFOA, which are now banned, are called ‘long-chain’ compounds because they have eight carbon atoms, while the chemicals that have replaced them are called ‘short-chain’ compounds because they have fewer carbon atoms.  While similar, these so-called “next-generation” compounds have different molecular structures, and the effectiveness of filters certified for PFOS and PFOA for removal of replacement PFAS chemicals is unknown.

Reverse Osmosis Filters vs. Activated Carbon Filters

In general, reverse osmosis systems more consistently removed PFAS compared to activated carbon systems. Most reverse osmosis systems also have the benefit of an additional activated carbon filtration stage included in the system.  Reverse osmosis systems remove a wider range of other contaminants from drinking water and their effectiveness can be tested at home using an electrical conductivity meter.  But activated carbon filter systems are significantly less expensive than reverse osmosis systems.  Carbon filters must be changed on schedule as they will lose their effectiveness over time.

Recommendations

  • Check out EWG’s interactive PFAS map to see if your drinking water has high levels of PFAS chemicals or if there is a contamination site near your community.
  • If you live in an area with contamination, contact your local health department for current information.
  • If you have a private well and suspect PFAS contamination, consult your state health department about having your well tested.
  • The best bet to filter PFAS chemicals out of your water is an in-home reverse osmosis filter under your sink or at your tap.  To ensure that the reverse osmosis filter is working, use an inexpensive conductivity meter.  These filter systems remove ions and total dissolved solids in addition to other contaminants, and a low conductivity reading for the filtered water indicates that the filter is overall effective.
  • You can also consider an activated carbon filter that will most often provide effective removal.  Results have been inconsistent and the filters become less effective with time.  If possible, choose a filter that has been tested for PFOS, PFOA and additional PFAS chemicals that may be present in your water. 

Prof. Detlef Knappe from NC State has done research on filter effectiveness for a bunch of PFAS varieties.  Here are results with brand names from 2017 testing.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu