Researchers in a recent study found that 57,412 sites nationwide, including 1,452 in North Carolina, are suspected of being contaminated with perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
the PFAS Project Laboratory research team published its findings in mid-October, “Presumption of contamination: a new approach to PFAS contamination based on probable sources”, in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. The team concluded that PFAS contamination should be assumed at certain industrial facilities, sites associated with waste containing PFAS, and locations where fluorinated foams have been used for firefighting.
The PFAS Project Laboratory, based at Northeastern University in Boston, studies the social, scientific, and political factors related to PFAS and investigates contamination through collaboration with affected communities, researchers, and nonprofit organizations. . The lab is supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and Whitman College.
The researchers explain in the paper that because data on the scale, scope, and severity of PFAS releases and resulting contamination across the country is patchy and incomplete, the team developed what they called the “contamination approach.” presumptive” to determine possible sources of contamination.
To do this, the team used previous research identifying suspected industrial PFAS dischargers, state studies using PFAS test data to identify suspected categories of contamination, self-reported PFAS release data by industrial users, and numerous studies on specific PFAS contaminants. . sites to compile the unique map to find possible contamination. The map includes sites that are often sources of contamination, but where testing has not confirmed the presence of PFAS, according to the study.
Of the 57,412 sites suspected of being contaminated with PFAS in the 50 states and Washington, DC, 9,145 are industrial facilities, 4,255 are wastewater treatment plants, 3,493 are current or former military sites, and 519 are major airports. The report adds that proximity to contamination is consistently associated with higher levels of PFAS in drinking water, and drinking contaminated water is associated with higher levels of PFAS in the blood.
“While it sounds scary that there are more than 57,000 sites of suspected contamination, it’s almost certainly a gross underestimate,” Dr. Phil Brown, director of the Environmental Health and Social Sciences Research Institute at the University of California, said in a statement. Northeastern University and co-author of the article. “The scope of PFAS contamination is immense, and the communities affected by this contamination deserve swift regulatory action that stops current and future uses of PFAS while cleaning up existing contamination.”
PFAS exposure has been associated with increased total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, decreased antibody response to vaccines in children, decreased fertility in women, increased risk of pregnancy-induced hypertension, and/or preeclampsia, kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, chronic kidney disease, elevated uric acid, hyperuricemia, and gout Liver damage, impaired immune system, and adverse developmental outcomes, including a small decrease in birth weight and impaired development of the mammary gland, according to the laboratory.
Dr. Linda Birnbaum, a co-author on the paper and a scientist emeritus and former director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program, reiterated to Costal Review that “pollution is everywhere, often in places we’ve never seen before.” we suspect.”
She said in the statement that “not only do we all have PFAS in our bodies, but we also know that PFAS affects almost every organ system. It is essential that we understand where PFAS are in our communities so that we can prevent exposures.”
Dr. Alissa Cordner, lead author of the paper and co-director of the PFAS Project Laboratory, said they are aware that PFAS testing is very sporadic and that there are many data gaps in identifying known sites of PFAS contamination.
“This is why the ‘presumptive contamination’ model is a useful tool in the absence of existing high-quality data,” he said.
Cordner explained to the Coastal Review in a follow-up interview that because most of the country doesn’t have extensive testing data on PFAS contamination sites, the researchers’ model (presumptive contamination approach) can help decision makers. to prioritize locations for future testing and regulatory action. .
The research team used published scientific studies and government research programs that identified specific types of locations that were sources of PFAS contamination.
“For example, extensive testing at Department of Defense sites suggests that military bases are suspected sites of PFAS contamination due to the use of fluorinated firefighting foams,” he said.
“We also collect information on what types of industrial facilities are likely to use and emit PFAS. We found 11 high-quality studies or regulatory processes that targeted or identified specific types of industrial facilities, and decided to include industry categories if they were identified on at least four of these lists,” said Cordner.
“Then we gathered as much high-quality publicly available national data as we could about the different types of sites of suspected PFAS contamination, and kept only the data that was specific enough in terms of its geolocation data for us to use. to create a nationwide map. This left us with over 57,000 identified sites in the United States.”
The research team verified the accuracy of their model by comparing 500 known contamination sites from the PFAS Project Laboratory. Contamination Site Tracker against probable contamination sites identified with the presumptive contamination map. They found that 72% of known contamination sites were included in the map of suspected contamination sites or captured by the overall conceptual model, even if those sites could not be mapped on a national scale, according to the report. Some suspected sources of contamination, such as airplane and rail crash sites, hydraulic fracking sites, and sewage sludge land application sites, were not included on the map due to a lack of nationally available data.
With the development of the concept of presumed contamination, in addition to validating the model against known contamination sites, the document states that it “provides a rigorous advance to previous academic and regulatory models and having a standardized methodology allows researchers, regulators and other decision-makers decision-making at various geographic scales to identify potential PFAS contamination using publicly available data.
Dr. Kimberly Garrett, a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University and a co-author on the paper, said that because PFAS testing is expensive and resource-intensive, “we have developed a standardized methodology that can help identify and prioritize locations for monitoring.” , regulation and remediation. ”
In response to a request for comment on the study, a representative from the state Department of Health and Human Services said in an email that the department is continuing its work to understand the impact and effects of PFAS and other “forever chemicals” in the health of North Carolinians.
“The article provides a valuable estimate of PFAS contamination in North Carolina that can help NCDHHS, communities, and private well users become more aware of where people might be most exposed to PFAS,” according to the representative.
“Private well users can use the article map and community resourcestogether with others NCDHHS Guide to Private Wells, to help decide whether to test their wells for PFAS or other potential contaminants. To help with these efforts, NCDHHS has developed several documents to help residents of affected communities understand more about PFAS, see here: PFAS Fact Sheet, GenX Data Sheet, PFAS testing and filtrationY PFAS Physician’s Memo.”