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Daily News Blog

31
Aug

PFAS Rain? ‘Forever Chemicals’ Contaminate Global Water Resources

(Beyond Pesticides, August 31, 2022) No rainwater on Earth is safe for consumption and use as per-, and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) readily contaminate the hydrological ecosystem (properties, distribution, and circulation of water), according to a study published in Environmental Science and Technology. This finding is concerning as it adds to research demonstrating chemical pollutants (e.g., pesticides, pharmaceuticals, PFAS, heavy metals, radioactive material, etc.) exceed the “planetary boundary” contamination and needs addressing. The Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University study, “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity,” emphasizes that there are nine “planetary boundaries” related to climate change, biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle, the phosphorous cycle, stratospheric ozone depletion, ocean acidification, global freshwater use, changes/intensification of land use, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution. When crossing these boundaries, the risk of generating large-scale abrupt or irreversible environmental changes increases. In fact, anthropogenic (human) activities are increasing global contamination levels past safe thresholds.

Studies have already found that current human operations are quantifiable in almost all nine planetary boundaries and exceed the threshold for at least four out of the nine boundaries. Most recently, a 2022 report concludes that humanity exceeds planetary boundaries related to environmental pollutants and other “novel entities,” including plastics and pesticides. Considering chemical pollution continually “runs the risk of crossing Earth’s planetary boundary thresholds, government and health officials should have priority for precautionary action and further research.” Therefore, the study notes, “[B]ecause of the poor reversibility of environmental exposure to PFAS and their associated effects, it is vitally important that PFAS uses and emissions are rapidly restricted.”

Regarding chemical pollution, this study compares environmental four perfluoroalkyl acids [PFAAs] (i.e., perfluorooctanesulfonic acid [PFOS], perfluorooctanoic acid [PFOA], perfluorohexanesulfonic acid [PFHxS], and perfluorononanoic acid [PFNA]) in various agents, including rainwater, soils, and surface waters, to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed guideline levels. The results determine global levels of all four PFAAs exceed the planetary boundary for chemical pollution. Since PFAS are highly persistent in the ecosystem and consistently persistent in the water cycle, atmospheric deposition of these substances (accumulation of the substances in the atmosphere) is inevitable. 

The study highlights three key findings:

  1. “Levels of PFOA and PFOS in rainwater often greatly exceed US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Lifetime Drinking Water Health Advisory levels and the sum of the aforementioned four PFAAs (Σ4 PFAS) in rainwater is often above Danish drinking water limit values also based on Σ4 PFAS;
  2. Levels of PFOS in rainwater are often above Environmental Quality Standard for Inland European Union Surface Water; and
  3. Atmospheric deposition also leads to global soils being ubiquitously contaminated and to be often above proposed Dutch guideline values.”

PFAS are a group of nearly 10,000 human-made chemicals in various consumer products that people use daily. Not only is the public exposed to such chemicals; those who work in factories that create products that include PFAS, or workers who use such products regularly, have higher cumulative exposures. Across multiple states, firefighters have begun to bring lawsuits against manufacturers of the foams, charging that the companies knowingly made and sold products with these forever chemicals that put the workers’ health at risk. Others at greater-than-average exposure risk include pregnant or lactating people and young children. Although some PFAS compound manufacturing has ceased, these chemicals last forever in the environment as their chemical structure makes them resistant to breakdown. Thus, PFAS contamination is significantly underrepresented and much more perverse than previously thought, polluting storage and transportation containers, food and water resources, and other chemical products. For instance, many reports address the high levels of PFAS contamination in the insecticide Anvil 10+10.

Although EPA does not regulate PFAS in pesticide formulas, the agency lists these substances in the inert ingredient database, and thus product labels do not require disclosure of contaminants fundamental for pesticide products through the manufacturing or packaging process. Concerning the ecosystem, the ongoing detection of PFAS in various environments and soils also threatens the ability of growers, including organic growers, to produce food that does not harbor these compounds. PFAS chemical residues are persistent in food and drinking water, with over six million U.S. residents regularly encountering drinking water with PFAS levels above the EPA health advisory of 70 ng/L. Therefore, PFAS are detectable in almost all of the U.S. population—disproportionately afflicting people of color communities—and have implications for human health. 

This study adds to the growing number of reports indicating chemical pollution levels exceed safe limits for humanity. PFAS in rainwater, surface water, and soil exceed the planetary boundary for chemical pollution, contaminating above EPA’s proposed guideline levels. Despite reductions in the global emissions for the four PFAS compounds, the environmental persistence and hydrological cycling of these toxic chemicals make them ever-present. Moreover, PFAS are common in non-stick cookware, cleaning/personal care products, food packaging, pesticide products, human and animal tissues, and even remote environments like the Arctic, Antarctica, and Eastern European Tibetan Plateau. The study highlights PFAS accumulation in remote regions as a significant concern, implicating the chemicals’ presence in resources (e.g., food, water, etc.) and passive transfer to body blood/tissue. Moreover, permafrost and glacial melting as a result of global warming will only add to water source contamination as volatile chemicals can enter waterways at the same concentration levels as before ice entrapment, even after several decades. Environmental studies professor at Stockholm University, Ian Cousins, Ph.D., states, “I was surprised that even in the remotest areas on Earth, that the levels in rainwater, for example in Antarctica and on the Tibetan plateau, are above the recently set U.S. EPA health advisories for drinking water,”

PFAS compounds are not the only compounds that exhibit extreme persistence and accumulation in the ecosystem. Some regionally banned legacy pesticides like DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) and its breakdown metabolite DDE (dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene) remain at concerning levels in the environment, despite a ban in 1972. Like PFAS, DDT/DDE compounds show up in produce grown in soil treated or contaminated with the chemical — even decades ago.

Contamination of the global water supply with combinations of harmful chemicals is glaringly problematic for public health and the environment. According to Beyond Pesticides, which covers pesticide (and other kinds of) chemical pollution, “These results underscore a grim twin reality to the human-caused climate emergency and should be a dire warning on the state of our shared environment and a time for a systemic movement to eliminate fossil fuel-based pesticides and fertilizers.” This study highlights the impact rain being a vessel for global chemical contamination has on the exceeding levels of PFAS in the ecosystem. 

For humanity to continue to develop and thrive for generations to come, it is critical to avoid catastrophic consequences associated with exceeding planetary boundary thresholds. The study concludes, “In view of the impacts of humanity’s chemical footprint on planetary health, it is of great importance to avoid further escalation of the problem of large-scale and long-term environmental and human exposure to PFAS by rapidly restricting uses of PFAS wherever possible. Furthermore, as has been stated by ourselves and others before, society should not continually repeat the same mistakes with other persistent chemicals.”

Ubiquitous environmental contaminants like PFAS have severe consequences, especially on the health of vulnerable individuals. Various pesticide products act similarly to PFAS, and individuals can encounter these substances simultaneously, resulting in more severe health outcomes. Therefore, advocates urge that policies enforce stricter pesticide regulations and increase research on the long-term impacts of pesticide exposure. Many states are issuing regulatory limits on various PFAS in drinking water, groundwater, and soil. However, EPA must require complete product testing and disclosure of ingredients for proper PFAS regulation. Furthermore, the agency must eliminate the need for toxic pesticides by promoting organic and ecological pest management practices. Solutions like buyinggrowing, and supporting organic can help eliminate the extensive use of pesticides in the environment. Organic land management and regenerative organic agriculture eliminate the need for toxic agricultural pesticides. Given the wide availability of non-pesticidal alternative strategies, families and agricultural industry workers can apply these methods to promote a safe and healthy environment, especially among chemically vulnerable individuals. For more information on why organic is the healthy choice, see the Beyond Pesticides webpage, Health Benefits of Organic Agriculture. Additionally, learn more about how the lack of adequate pesticide regulations can adversely affect human and environmental health by visiting the Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticides and You article “Regulatory Failures Mount, Threatening Health and Safety.”

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

Source: Wood TV, Environmental Science and Technology

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