Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS)
THIS PAGE IS CURRENTLY UNDERGOING UPDATES.
What are PFAS and where do they come from?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are manmade chemicals used in many industries to make things waterproof, non-stick, and stain resistant. Some examples of materials that may contain PFAS 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.
There are thousands of PFAS, but only a small number have been evaluated for their risk to human health and the environment. In addition, little is known about the health and environmental risks of exposure to combinations of these chemicals. 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 PFAS 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 also 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 PFAS in their blood. PFAS have also been found in sea turtles, whales, dolphins, and Hawaiian monk seals around Hawaiʻi.
How do PFAS get into the environment?
PFAS 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. PFAS accumulate in landfills from food packaging, personal and household products. PFAS 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 PFAS 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 PFAS are through food, personal products, contaminated drinking water and contaminated dust.
- Food: PFAS can contaminate food in a number of ways that can lead to human exposure when eating the contaminated food. PFAS can get into food through:
- Contact with certain types of grease-resistant or water-resistant food packaging made with PFAS
- Contact with non-stick cookware made with PFAS
- Accumulation in fish from PFAS 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 PFAS 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 Drinking Water: PFAS can contaminate food in a number of ways that can lead to human exposure when eating the contaminated food. PFAS can get into food through:
- Drinking water contaminated with PFAS is a common source of PFAS exposure.
- Most cases of contaminated drinking water in the U.S. are the result of contamination from fire-fighting training sites, military installations, or manufacturing facilities.
- Contaminated Dust: Dust can be contaminated with PFAS through the breakdown of products containing PFAS. 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.
Because PFAS 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 PFAS?
Information about the adverse health effects from PFAS 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 and response to vaccines, 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 certain types of cancer. Little is known about the health impacts from exposure to combinations of these chemicals (aggregate exposure).
Are there screening levels of PFAS in water or soil that can be used to tell is contamination is a hazard to human health or the environment?
Hawaii DOH Environmental Action Levels (EALs) for PFAS
HDOH’s Environmental Action Levels (EALs) are designed as a threshold level below which no adverse health effects are anticipated. The EALs incorporate uncertainty factors to ensure they are human and environmental health protective. There are different EALs calculated for soil, groundwater that is a source of drinking water, groundwater that is not a source of drinking water, and soil vapor. HDOH’s Hazard Evaluation and Emergency Response (HEER) Office initially published EALs for 18 PFAS chemicals in April 2021. The technical memorandum outlining the EAL process and calculations was revised in August 2021 and December 2022 with the addition of an EAL for 6:2 FTS bringing the total EALs to 19 PFAS chemicals. This is the most comprehensive set of PFAS screening levels available. To read the most recent version of the PFAS Screening Level Memorandum, please click here.
EPA’s June 2022 Drinking Water Lifetime Health Advisory Levels
EPA’s lifetime health advisories identify levels to protect all people, including sensitive populations and life stages, from adverse health effects resulting from daily exposure to certain PFAS in drinking water across an entire lifetime. These levels also take into account other potential sources of exposure to these PFAS beyond drinking water (for example, food, air, consumer products, etc.).
In June 2022, the EPA published interim updated drinking water lifetime health advisory levels for two PFAS chemicals (PFOS and PFOA). These updated levels are MUCH lower than EPA’s prior health advisory levels for PFOS and PFOA and further evaluation of the science behind the new levels is ongoing.
At the same time, EPA released drinking water lifetime health advisory levels for two additional PFAS chemicals: PFBS and GEN-X (also called HFPO).
EPA’s new lifetime health advisory levels, measured in parts per trillion (ppt):
- Interim updated health advisory for PFOA = 0.004 ppt
- Interim updated health advisory for PFOS = 0.02 ppt
- Final health advisory for GenX chemicals = 10 ppt
- Final health advisory for PFBS = 2,000 ppt
It is important to remember that these levels are for only drinking water and for a lifetime of exposure. In addition, interpretation of lab results for PFOA and PFOS is difficult because these health advisory levels are far lower than the levels at which a laboratory can detect these chemicals.
For more information on the EPA’s PFAS Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA, PFOS, GEN X, and PFBS, please see: https://www.epa.gov/sdwa/questions-and-answers-drinking-water-health-advisories-pfoa-pfos-genx-chemicals-and-pfbs
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.
- PFAS in fish and sea water in the near-shore environment at 11 high-risk sites around Oʻahu. Partnership with Hawaiʻi Pacific University and United States Geological Survey (USGS). Sample collection and laboratory analyses complete. Data evaluation and publication in progress. More details and data coming soon. See fish results: PFASs in Manybar Goatfish around Oʻahu, 2021 (ND Sawickij)
- PFAS in frequently-eaten fish purchased from markets. Species tested include pelagic (ocean-going) fish like ʻahi, ono, and marlin. Sample collection and laboratory analyses complete. Data evaluation and publication in progress. More details and data coming soon.
- PFAS in wastewater, biosolids and landfill leachate. Evaluating PFAS concentrations statewide in wastewater and biosolids from wastewater treatment plants plus landfill leachate. Sample collection in progress. More details and data coming soon.
- PFAS in Drinking Water
- The Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 3) conducted by EPA in calendar years 2013-2015 looked for 6 PFAS chemicals in public drinking water systems serving 10,000 people or more. UCMR 3 did not identify any large drinking water systems in Hawaiʻi with PFAS contamination. For more information about UCMR-3 including the data, please visit EPA’s UCMR 3 website.
- PFAS in high-risk drinking water wells: Monitoring for PFAS in groundwater at 20 county and military drinking water wells on Oʻahu, Kauaʻi, Hawaiʻi, and Maui. Sample collection is complete with data analysis in progress. More details and data coming soon.
- The Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR 5) will evaluate public drinking water systems across the country for 29 PFAS chemicals. All public drinking water systems in Hawaii that serve over 3,300 people will be tested in calendar years 2023-2025. For more information on UCMR 5, visit EPA’s UCMR 5 website.
- Additional drinking water systems that are not tested in UCMR 5 will be tested for PFAS in a drinking water project funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
- PFAS Releases – Environmental Emergency Response. The HEER Office responds to environmental releases of chemicals containing PFAS such as the release of firefighting foam near Adit 6 at the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility in November 2022. Oversight of the Navy’s sampling and remediation actions continue to ensure full characterization of the contamination and remediation of this risk.
- PFAS in Red Hill Groundwater Monitoring Wells. 10 Groundwater monitoring wells around the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility are currently being regularly monitored for the presence of PFAS.
- PFAS in compost and food crops grown in compost. Evaluating PFAS concentrations and risks in compost made from compostable food containers and food crops grown in compost. Project expected to begin in 2023.
- PFAS EAL Updates. Continued evaluation and updates to the PFAS EALs are anticipated when EPA releases its planned draft Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) for PFOA and PFOS, expected in January 2023.
- PFAS Contaminated Sites – Evaluation and Long-term clean-up oversight. The HEER Office oversees the evaluation and remediation of chemically contaminated sites. Identified sites in Hawaii that have potential PFAS contamination include firefighting training sites, airports, and military sites. Sites with potential PFAS contamination have been specially labeled in the HEER Office’s public database of sites called iHEER. To view these sites, visit https://health.hawaii.gov/heer/siteinfo/iheer-information/ and follow the links to the iHEER map-based viewer. Once in the iHEER viewer, type “Potential PFAS” into the keywords search box. Please note that some contaminated sites have restrictions on public viewing of documents in iHEER. These sites can be viewed on a map under “Instructions for Use-Map of Sites that are Marked “Not for Public” in iHEER” on the iHEER information website. More information about these sites can be obtained via a public records request submitted to the HEER Office.
- Partnerships Working with partners in Hawaiʻi, Honolulu, Kauaʻi, and Maui Counties, the Department of Defense, the U.S. EPA, CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), 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 PFAS in Hawaiʻi.
Where can I get more information on PFASs?
PFAS resources on the HEER Office website:
- HDOH PFAS Factsheet: General PFAS Information
- HDOH PFAS Factsheet: DOH Actions to Evaluate and Reduce the Risk of PFAS in Hawaii
- EALs FOR PFAS (December 2022).
- 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 PFAS available on the internet. Here are some useful links for more information:
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) www.epa.gov/pfas
- CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) www.atsdr.cdc.gov/pfas/index.html
- National Institute of Environmental Health Services (NIEHS) www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/pfc/index.cfm
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA) www.fda.gov/food/chemicals/and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas
- Department of Defense www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/pfas/
- Green Science Policy Institute – PFAS Central www.pfascentral.org
- Silent Spring Institute – PFAS Exchange www.pfas-exchange.org
- 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/
- EPA’s PFAS Analytical Tools www.echo.epa.gov/trends/pfas-tools
Page updated 01.05.2022