Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version Share this

PFAS chemicals have been used in some fire-fighting foams, cookware, carpets, clothing,  and fast-food wrappers

By Miriam Raftery and Rebecca Jefferis Williamson

Photo, left: Poster for 2019 Dark Waters movie

January 26, 2020 (San Diego’s East County) – The 2019 movie “Dark Waters” alerted the public to health hazards posed by perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS, also know as PFOA and PFOS) that contaminated water and groundwater around manufacturer DuPont’s facility in Parksburg, West Virginia. The chemicals have been linked to deaths, cancer and more--and they are pervasive, found in 97% of Americans tested, PBS reports, citing a U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination study in 2015.

Pollution nationwide

Recent tests by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found PFAS in water supplies of major cities across the U.S. – far more than revealed in federal tests.  Yet the federal government has failed to take action to protect public health. A bill seeking to regulate PFAS has passed the House of Representatives and faces an uphill battle in the Senate. Even if it passes,  President Donald Trump has threatened to veto the measure.

California contamination

In California, a 2019 study found drinking water sources for 74 community water systems serving 7.5 million Californians are contaminated with PFAS, according to an EWG review of the latest state data, as the Los Angeles Times reported.

All PFAS found in California water systems’ sources exceeded 1 part per trillion, or ppt, the safe level recommended by the best independent studies.  At the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base, a combined concentration of 820 ppt for seven different PFAS chemicals was measured in a single well in 2017.

Very low doses of PFAS in drinking water have been linked to increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver and thyroid disease. among other serious health conditions.

Dark Waters

The “Dark Waters” movie documents the true story of attorney Robert Bilott’s successful efforts to hold DuPont responsible for deaths and illnesses in the community caused by the chemicals.  Actor and producer Mark Ruffalo portrays Bilott, a crusading partner in a law firm that customarily represented chemical companies. Bilott convinced the firm to take on chemical maker DuPont after he exposed the horrific impacts of PFOs on people in his own hometown. Bilott ultimately won a massive settlement in the landmark case despite DuPont’s efforts to obscure evidence that it knew of the dangers of its products, which had caused unusual birth defects in workers, long before DuPont polluted public waterways and while the company continued selling products containing PFAS.

Products and industries utilizing PFAS

The chemicals never break down once released in the environment, yet have been used since the 1940s in products including Teflon pots and pans, stain resistant carpets such as Scotch Guard, water-resistant clothing such as rain slickers, grease-resistant fast food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, and some firefighting foams.

They are used in industries including aerospace, automotive, construction, electronics and the military as well as firefighting.

Photo, right:  long-chain PFOA, by Manuel Almagro Rivas, creative commons

Health impacts

The EWG states, “Numerous studies link these and closely related PFAS chemicals to:

  • Testicular, kidney, liver and pancreatic cancer.
  • Reproductive problems
  • Weakened childhood immunity
  • Low birth weight
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Increased cholesterol
  • Weight gain in children and dieting adults

According to the National Institute of Health, health impacts include altered metabolism, reduced fertility, reduced growth of fetuses, increase risk of obesity and reduced ability of the immune system to fight infections. 

PFAS in water supplies

A study released earlier this month by the EWG found fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas such as New York and Washington, D.C.

“Based on our tests and new academic research that found PFAS widespread in rainwater, EWG scientists now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water,” a press release from EWG states.

“Decades of chemical industry deception and government inaction and collusion have brought us to this crisis,” said Mark Ruffalo, the star and a producer of the film, and a longtime environmental activist. “Nearly every American is carrying these dangerous chemicals in their blood, and as EWG’s new findings show, everywhere we look, we find more PFAS contamination of our tap water. The government has done little or nothing in 20 years, so it’s time for all of us to demand that our elected leaders do their jobs and pass laws to clean up this mess.”   

PFAS may also be present in bottled water, since there is no requirement for bottled water companies to disclose the presence of PFAS chemicals.

Rollbacks in clean water protections

Yet the Trump administration last week finalized its plan to repeal the Waters of the U.S. rule, or WOTUS, repealing critical safeguards that prohibit the dumping of industrial and agricultural pollution into sensitive waterways that provide tap water for more than 117 million Americans.

“The damage President Trump is doing to the nation’s drinking water supply and to the laws and safeguards once in place to protect it is appalling and indefensible,” said Craig Cox, EWG’s senior vice president for agriculture and natural resources.

Congress weighs PFAS regulations, but Trump threatens veto

House Resolution 535 now before the Senate, the bill Trump has said he will veto, seeks to remedy the issue at the federal level. It would declare PFAS hazardous substances and require remediation of releases into the environment, require toxicity testing on all PFAS and establish a grant program to help community water systems with costs of treating water contaminated by PFAS, also adding some PFAS to a list of hazardous air pollutants, among other things. It would also require a Safer Choice label to inform consumers of PFAS-free products. The bill is backed by major health and environmental organizations. But the American Chemistry Council opposes it, claiming it “applies a one-size fits all approach to regulating the wide variety of PFAS chemistries.”

Defense bill gutted of some PFAS protections

Even stronger protections were proposed in the recent National Defense Authorization Bill, but before it passed the Senate at year’s end, amendments removed key provisions aimed at reducing ongoing release of PFAS from tap water and cleaning up contamination.  Scott Faber, senior vice president for governmental affairs at the Environmental Working Group, told ECM via email that “the NDAA was our best chance to tackle PFAS pollution.”

According to EWG the NDAA for fiscal year 2020 dropped these provisions:

·      Restricting PFAS discharges from manufacturers into drinking water supplies under the Clean Water Act.

·      Requiring water utilities to reduce the amount of PFAS in tap water under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

·      Designating PFAS as “hazardous substances” under the federal Superfund law that requires cleanup of the most contaminated sites.

Additionally, EWG stated the final NDAA will phase out the military’s use of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging, expand reporting of PFAS discharges through the Toxic Release Inventory, and expand monitoring for PFAS in tap water and ground water. The bill also requires that the Department of Defense properly incinerate firefighting foams and expands DOD clean-up programs to include National Guard bases.

 “The right way to tackle PFAS in our tap water is to stop further discharges into our drinking water, and force polluters and the Pentagon to pay their fair share for cleanup – and none of that will happen until Congress acts,” Faber said. “The NDAA was not our only chance to end PFAS pollution and hold polluters and the Defense Department accountable but it was our best chance. By failing to reduce ongoing PFAS releases and cleaning up legacy PFAS pollution, Congress shirked one its most basic responsibilities – keeping us safe.”

EPA’s response

ECM reached out to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for information on contaminant clean-ups and monitoring and was forwarded this link: UCMR stands for Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (page one of in this link).  The federal survey of water is done by a "representative sample” every five years, the EPA drafts up a new list of contaminants to monitor, calling it a Contaminant Candidate List (CCL).

The document (in the EPA link) says that The Safe Drinking Water Act requires the EPA to monitor "no more than 30 contaminants per five-year period."  The contaminants are all listed in CCL 1 through 4 (four being the most current).  The EPA collects data from "large Public Water Systems" (PWS), which is defined as "serving more than 10,000 people," and from a "representative sample" of smaller systems.

What has been done to protect consumers

Some efforts have been made, but they are small steps to address a gigantic problem.

Although some PFAS have been phased out by manufacturers, chemical makers continue to come up with new forms of PFAS that remain on the market across the U.S., the California Water Boards website reports.

The Air Force has swapped out old firefighting foam containing PFAS, but kept some PFAS foam on hand for emergency responses.  But the Navy is still using PFAS firefighting foam on all of its ships, the EWG reports. 

In California, a new law , Assembly Bill 756, took effect January 1st that requires water agencies to notify consumers of PFAS findings. 

Helix water representative discusses PFAS challenges; its  water tests clean

ECM spoke in December with Brian Olney, director of water quality and system operations at Helix Water, which serves much of East County.  He told us that although PFAS testing was not required, Helix has tested and has consistently not detected any PFAS in its source water or plant effluent.  Source water includes the rivers, rain, and snowmelt from which Helix obtains drinking water for its customers.

“It’s a hot topic right now in the industry,” Olney told ECM, adding that in California, “the problem right now tends to be focused around groundwater.”

Olney says there are many PFAS agents that help with things like stopping grease from passing through paper bags and dousing industrial fires.

“In the PFAS category there’s like 3,000 agents, all kinds of different chemical chains, some short, some long, and we don’t know the prevalence of them all,” says Olney. He says data is needed on how harmful these chemicals are for human health.

One problem is that testing for PFAS is “very complex and tricky…You can contaminate a sample just by taking the sample,” tracking it in on clothing, for example. “If someone wants to have a private well tested, call around to local environmental labs and see if they can come and take the sample,” he suggested, rather than take a sample yourself and mailing it in. 

According to the Environmental Working Group, removing PFAS from drinking water is a complex and expensive process.

The bill before Congress would provide grants for community water suppliers to remediate contamination, and would also exempt public airports from liability related to remediating toxic contamination of PFAS.

PFAS in firefighting foam

Photo, right: firefighters battle airport fire with foam. Source: CC by SA

ECM spoke with Don Butz, head of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association, to ask about use of PFAS in firefighting foam in our region.

“PFAS are not in class A firefighting foam, the stuff you see sprayed on forest fires,” he assured. But PFAS may be in class B firefighting foams, which are used primarily to fight aircraft fires such as at airports and military bases, as well as industrial fires involving solvents.

How widely has PFAS firefighting foam been used locally? ECM seeks answers

ECM has submitted a public records request to the San Diego County Airport Authority to find out if firefighting foam has been used at airports in our region, including East County airports such as Gillespie Field. We also asked if any PFAS testing of water sources on and around local airports.

In addition, we have requested a list of contacts for all firefighting agencies in San Diego County to submit public records requests to those entities and learn whether any used firefighting foam containing PFAS. 

ECM will report results of those record requests once we receive responses.





Error message

Support community news in the public interest! As nonprofit news, we rely on donations from the public to fund our reporting -- not special interests. Please donate to sustain East County Magazine's local reporting and/or wildfire alerts at to help us keep people safe and informed across our region.


Great Article But Only the Tip of the Iceberg

In 1926 the State of New York banned adding lead to gasoline, a recent development. Oil companies got their allies in Congress to pass a bill preempting States from banning lead in gasoline. Not only was there already good medical evidence of its harms; but such harm was known going back to the Romans. See Episode 7, The Clean Room, in the series Cosmos with Neil deGrasse Tyson. More up-to-date medical studies have found that the enormous amounts of lead released into the environment affected lowering of IQs, other health problems, and some research found that after it was ended in 1990s that as levels of lead diminished in children and teens, so did levels of violence, lack of impulse control. And, though lead no longer in gasoline as with PFAS it will remain for ever in soil, water, and dust in air. Just one example of an industry where profits TRUMPED public health. Since World War II over 80,000 new chemicals have been released in the environment. Only about 1,000 were ever tested for risks. But, the problem is that it is IMPOSSIBLE to test for risks caused by the interaction of even a few of these chemicals. 

What is both frightening and fascinating is that the risks from the above put everyone at risk, even the CEOs and their loved ones, and various discoveries during lawsuits have shown that the industries were aware of the risks; yet, short-term profit TRUMPS all else, even ones loved ones.

The European Union has adopted a different approach called the Precautionary Principle. Though one can NEVER test for rare risks due to some minuscule group of peoples' genetic predispostion or test the interaction of several chemicals, it does require studies of risk before a chemical is allowed to be used.

And for those who don't believe in global warming, overwhelming research has found that fossil fuels are responsible for at least 150,000 premature deaths per year, many more diminished quality of life, and billions in medical expenses and lost wages.

While I don't oppose progress, including new chemicals, historically our government has ignored risks, siding with profit and industries, again, somehow ignoring that everyone from the President to members of Congress, to Civil Servants, and their families are being put at risk. We need to adopt the Precautionary Principle, not allow new chemicals to be used, then, if harm develops, taking years, even decades to ban them; but, unfortunately, some will go on forever and others take decades to break down into harmless substances.