Back to Basics, Chemicals, EHS Administration, Sustainability

Back to Basics: PFAS

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and actions to take to reduce the risks associated with PFAS.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking several steps to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their impact on the environment. It is important that businesses and environmental professionals be aware of PFAS and actions that can be taken to reduce the health and safety hazards that they cause.

Defining PFAS

According to the EPA, PFAS are widely used, long lasting chemicals, with components that break down very slowly over time. Many PFAS are found in the blood of animals and people all over the world, and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in nature. This is because of their widespread use and persistence in the environment.

PFAS can be found in water, air, fish, and soil at locations across the country and throughout the world, and there are thousands of PFAS chemicals found in different consumer, commercial, and industrial products. This makes it difficult to study and assess the potential human health and environmental risks.

However, scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment might be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. The EPA has employed researchers and partners across the country to answer the questions they still have about PFAS. These questions include how to better and more efficiently detect and measure PFAS in our air, water, soil, fish, and wildlife, how many people are exposed and harmful those PFAS are to people and the environment, and how to manage and dispose of PFAS and remove them from drinking water.

Exposure to PFAS

Exposure to PFAS is an issue because of where PFAS can now be found in water, soil, air, food, and materials in homes and workplaces, according to the EPA. They can be found in drinking water, including public drinking water systems and private drinking water wells, in the soil and water at landfills, disposal sites, and hazardous waste sites, and in fire extinguishing foam used to extinguish liquid-based fires.

PFAS are also present in manufacturing or chemical production facilities that use PFAS, such as chrome plating, electronics, and certain textile and paper manufacturers. Foods such as fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS and dairy products from livestock exposed to PFAS, and food packaging, such as grease-resistant paper, fast food containers and wrappers, and microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers, can all contain PFAS. Finally, household products and dust, personal care products, like shampoo, dental floss, and cosmetics, and biosolids like fertilizer from wastewater treatment plants can all be found with PFAS.

The EPA says that due to their widespread production and use, and their ability to move and persist in the environment, most people in the United States have been exposed to some PFAS, according to surveys conducted by the CDC. Most known exposures are relatively low, but some are high, especially when the exposure comes from a concentrated source over long time periods. Some PFAS chemicals can actually accumulate in the body over time. According to current research, people can be exposed to PFAS by:

  • Working in jobs like firefighting or chemical manufacturing and processing
  • Drinking water contaminated with PFAS
  • Eating certain foods, like fish, that might contain PFAS
  • Swallowing contaminated soil or dust
  • Breathing air containing PFAS
  • Using products made with PFAS or that are packaged in materials containing PFAS

Workers specifically can be exposed in different ways than the public can, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Employees may come into contact with PFAS by touching concentrated products or breathing PFAS in the air at their workplace. Some workers will have higher exposure levels than others, depending on their industry, occupation, and work activities.

PFAS can cause different levels of adverse health effects depending on the amount of exposure, says the EPA. Studies have shown that exposure to certain PFAS levels can lead to reproductive effects such as decreased fertility and increased high blood pressure in pregnant women, developmental effects or delays in children, increased risk of some cancers, reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections, interference with natural hormones, and increased cholesterol and risk of obesity.

Adults may have greater exposures from their jobs or from where they live, like industrial workers who make or process PFAS or people who live or recreate near PFAS-producing facilities. Pregnant and lactating women tend to drink more water than the average person, so they may have higher PFAS exposure than others if it is present in their drinking water.

Children are still developing, meaning they might be more sensitive to the harmful effects of PFAS. Kids can also be exposed to PFAS more than adults because they drink more water, eat more food, and breathe more air per pound of body weight, and young children crawl on the floor and put things in their mouth.

Additionally, breast milk from mothers with PFAS in their blood and formula made with water containing PFAS might expose infants to PFAS, and it may be possible for children to be exposure in utero during the course of a pregnancy.

Actions to reduce risk

Individuals can take several steps to reduce PFAS exposure, according to the EPA, that may also apply to employees. The first step is to figure out if PFAS are in the drinking water in the area. This can be done by contacting the local water utility to learn how they may be addressing PFAS, and to ask them to test the water or to give over information about previous test results.

Some public drinking water systems do not have this information, but testing independently is possible, using a state-certified laboratory with EPA-developed testing methods. Results of independent testing should be compared with the state’s standards for safe levels of PFAS in drinking water. If a certain state does not have standards, then the results should be compared to the EPA’s Health Advisory levels for certain PFAS.

If concern remains about the levels of PFAS in the drinking water, contact the state environmental protection agency or health department and the local water utility to find out what actions they recommend. Also, consider installing in-home water treatments, or filters, that are certified to lower the levels of PFAS in water.

In terms of consumer products, there are still some products and indoor air or dust that contain PFAS, despite the recent efforts to remove certain PFAS from commerce which have reduced the likelihood of exposure.

While OSHA has not set specific standards for PFAS, to reduce risk in the workplace, employers could select products and equipment that are safer alternatives to those containing PFAS, and have employees use personal protective equipment (PPE) when working around PFAS. Employers could also refer to OSHA’s hazard communication (HAZCOM) standard and the chemical hazard standard for dealing with this issue, since PFAS are chemicals that are causing hazards in the workplace.

Click here to learn more about PFAS and the EPA’s efforts to combat them.

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