News Feature | December 6, 2017

Scientists Urge Coordination In PFC Response

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

scientist reg new

Scientists want to see more coordination across communities when it comes to policymaking and research into perfluorinated compounds (PFCs).

“A new, peer-reviewed letter calling for coordinated health research in U.S. communities with drinking water contaminated by highly fluorinated chemicals was published in the journal Environmental Health,” The Hill reported.

“Thirty-nine leading scientists and physicians signed this letter, which was sent to legislators on key committees in the House and Senate and in impacted regions to draw attention to the pollution of drinking water with these chemicals. The Pentagon and the Federal Aviation Administration also received this letter, because firefighting foams used at military bases and airports are responsible for a major share of the contamination,” the report said.

The researchers noted that drinking water serving six million Americans has been found to contain highly fluorinated chemicals.

“We propose the development of a high-level research strategy to maximize what can be learned about health effects of highly fluorinated chemicals and methods to reduce or eliminate exposure. We suggest coordinating the research across multiple communities for greater statistical power. If implemented, such a strategy could help to generate information and evidence integration to enable regulatory decision making and contribute to reducing future exposures,” the researchers wrote.

Other researchers have placed the number of people affected by PFCs at an even higher level.

A study by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University in Boston shows PFCs are found in “drinking water for 15 million Americans in 27 states,” Time reported.

“Of the 47 locations where the source of PFCs contamination in drinking water supplies is known or suspected in the ... study, 21 are current or former military bases, 20 are industrial facilities and seven are from civilian firefighting sites. Some locations have multiple sources,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

The conundrum of how to treat PFCs is an increasingly enticing area for researchers, as regulators increase their scrutiny of these contaminants and water utilities across the country reckon with this difficult form of pollution.

Researchers from the University of Minnesota, for instance, are trying to develop effective ways to separate PFCs from water. Matt Simcik, an associate professor, has sought new ways to solidify PFCs to make them easier to remove, the Minnesota Daily reported.

“We don’t have a great handle on the toxicology yet,” Simcik said, per the report. “These chemicals are much different from anything we’ve dealt with before, so that makes them a bit scary.”

Simcik described why PFCs pose such a treatment challenge.

“It’s very difficult, even in the laboratory, to cause these molecules to break down … anything that sticks around forever isn’t necessarily a good thing … you can put them in nitric acid in the lab and they just don’t break,” he said.

“[PFCs were used in] tons and tons of consumer products … all of that stuff doesn’t stay where we want it to stay — it ends up in our waste stream … which becomes someone else’s drinking water,” he continued.

The U.S. EPA issued a health advisory in May about PFC exposure as various cities wage high-profile battles against the compounds, including Hoosick Falls, NY, the Philadelphia suburbs, and factory towns across the country.

Image credit: "Army scientists energize battery research," U.S. Army RDEComn © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/