Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs)
What are PFASs and where do they come from?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are manmade chemicals used in many industries to make things waterproof, non-stick, and stain resistant. Some examples of materials that may contain PFASs include firefighting foam, carpet, furniture, waterproof clothing, and certain types of food packaging. These chemicals are often described as “forever chemicals” because they do not breakdown over time and can build up in the environment and our bodies.
While there are thousands of PFASs, only a relatively small number are considered to pose a significant risk to human health and the environment. Early studies focused on two specific compounds: perfluoro octane sulfonate (PFOS-)i and perfluoro octanoate (PFOA-). These compounds were phased out of use by US manufacturers in the 1990s, however they remain a problem because they can still persist in the environment. Other PFASs of concern have been found to be widespread in the environment and require further study, including PFBS-, PFHxS-, PFPeA- PFHxA-, PFHpA-, PFNA- and PFDA-. Some of the newer replacement compounds, such as HFPO-DA (GenX) and ADONA, are being evaluated for potential risks.
When the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) tested the blood of volunteers in 2016, they concluded that 98% of Americans have detectable PFASs in their blood. PFASs have also been found in sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and Hawaiian monk seals around Hawaiʻi.
How do PFASs get into the environment?
PFASs can contaminate the environment in many different ways. When aqueous fire-fighting foam (AFFF) is used for fire-fighting training or to fight fires, it soaks into the ground and can reach ground water and drinking water and can end up in the ocean. PFASs accumulate in landfills from food packaging, personal and household products. PFASs can collect in wastewater from personal and household product use. They are not filtered out in wastewater treatment and can be discharged into the ocean with the treated wastewater. Some treated wastewater containing PFASs is re-used to irrigate golf courses, agricultural fields and road medians. Once the PFAS end up in the environment, they can get into fish and other animals.
Spills and dumping from PFAS manufacturing plants have been a major source of PFAS contamination on the U.S. mainland. Fortunately, in Hawaiʻi we do not have industrial plants that manufacture PFASs.
How might I be exposed to PFASs?
The main ways that people in Hawaiʻi may be exposed to PFASs are through food, personal products, and contaminated dust.
- Food: PFASs can contaminate food in a number of ways that can lead to human exposure when eating the contaminated food. PFASs can get into food through:
- contact with certain types of grease-resistant or water-resistant food packaging made with PFASs
- contact with non-stick cookware made with PFASs
- accumulation in fish from PFASs in their diet and the surrounding water
- accumulation in fruits and vegetables grown in PFAS-contaminated soils or watered with PFAS-contaminated water
- Personal Products: Many personal and household products contain PFASs and their use may create situations where they are unintentionally ingested or inhaled.
- Stain-resistant coatings used on carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics
- Water-resistant clothing
- Cleaning products
- Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss) and cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup)
- Paints, varnishes, and sealants
- Contaminated Dust: Dust can be contaminated with PFASs through the breakdown of products containing PFASs. This dust can then be unintentionally swallowed by people when it gets on their hands, silverware, or toys. This is especially concerning for young children who put objects or their hands in their mouth frequently.
On the U.S. mainland, there have been cases of PFASs from fire-fighting training sites, military installations, or manufacturing facilities contaminating drinking water sources leading to large exposures in near-by communities. So far in Hawaiʻi we are not aware of significant drinking water contamination with PFASs.
Because PFASs can cross the placenta and be transferred to breastmilk, babies born to mothers exposed to PFAS can be exposed during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
What are the potential health effects of exposure to PFASs?
Information about the adverse health effects from PFASs is still being gathered through scientific studies and a lot is unknown. There is evidence that high exposure to PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive, developmental, liver, kidney, and immunological problems in laboratory animals. Human studies have shown problems with cholesterol levels, the immune system, thyroid gland function, and decreased weight at birth. Some human studies have also shown carcinogenic effects, meaning high, long-term exposures to some of these chemicals may lead to cancer.
What is HDOH doing to evaluate PFAS contamination in Hawaiʻi?
The Hawaiʻi Department of Health has a number of projects in progress to better understand the presence of PFAS contamination in Hawaiʻi and the associated risks. Details will be added as results from these projects become available.
- Looking at PFAS in fish and sea water in the near-shore environment at 11 high-risk sites around Oʻahu. See fish results: PFASs in Manybar Goatfish around Oʻahu, 2021 (ND Sawickij)
- Testing for PFAS in frequently-eaten fish purchased from markets. Species tested include pelagic (ocean-going) fish like ʻahi and mahimahi, as well as reef fish like kala and pāpio.
- Evaluating the amount of PFAS in water before and after processing at wastewater treatment plants across the state.
- Evaluating for PFAS in biosolids and re-used water from wastewater treatment plants that is used on golf courses, highway medians, and agricultural fields.
- Checking for PFAS at landfills across the state.
- Monitoring for PFAS in groundwater at an estimated 20 county and military drinking water wells on Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi, and Maui.
- Working with partners in the Department of Defense, the U.S. EPA, Hawaiʻi Pacific University, the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, the U.S. Geological Survey, and other federal, state, and local stakeholders to combine resources and further investigate and understand PFASs in Hawaiʻi.
Where can I get more information on PFASs?
Some PFAS resources on the HEER Office website:
- Hawaiʻi’s new EALs FOR PFASs (December 2020).
- Dr. Roger Brewer gives a presentation “Untangling the PFAS Web” about Hawaiʻi’s new draft PFAS Environmental Action Levels.
There is a lot of information about PFASs available on the internet. Here are some useful links for more information:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) www.epa.gov/pfas
- U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/index.html
- U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS) www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc/index.cfm
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) www.fda.gov/food/chemicals/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas
- U.S. Department of Defense www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/pfas/
- Environmental Working Group www.ewg.org/key-issues/toxics/nonstick-chemicals
- Safer Chemicals Healthy Families www.saferchemicals.org/get-the-facts/toxic-chemicals/pfas-per-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances/