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Researcher: PFAS safe at low levels

After that: ‘There’s no definite answer’


Last updated 2/23/2019 at 12:47pm

More than 20 years ago, a rancher in West Virginia first raised concerns about the Dupont plant and its production of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances. Those are better known as PFAS and including PFOA and PFOS, for nonstick pots and pans and other items.

Just last year, a dairyman in eastern New Mexico raised concerns about those same chemicals in his water supply.

Over the years, plenty of research has been done about PFAS and PFOA, but little consensus exists beyond knowing the chemicals can be dangerous and that few outcomes from the chemicals are definite.

The EPA on Feb. 14 announced its intention to regulate the chemicals by year’s end, but plenty of details about what regulations will mean are still to be explained.

Hyeong-Moo Shin, an assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Texas-Arlington, did his PhD work in 2007 on the PFOA chemical. As a student, he was on the C8 Science Panel that looked at PFOA (also known as C8) emitted from the Washington Works plan in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

The panel concluded a probable link from C8 exposure to diagnosed high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.

Shin agrees with the Centers for Disease Control’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which says most people in the United States have been exposed to PFAS and have it in their bloodstream.

“It is difficult to track the route of exposure from these compounds,” Shin said. “For some areas, drinking water may be the major route. For the major amount of population, it may be using frying fans or eating fast foods because the wrapper of the hamburger contains some PFAS.”

He said at low levels, the chemicals are safe, “but it depends on the susceptibility of the populace. Maybe if it’s a young baby or older population, then PFAS may be risky.”

He noted the EPA’s recommended level of PFAS is no more than 70 parts per trillion, described as about a grain of sand in an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

When told that Clovis dairyman Art Schaap’s bloodstream tested at more than 170 times that EPA limit, Shin said it’s tough to tell if there would be an impact.

“If the resident is relatively healthy,” Shin said, “the high level of that compound could be OK. But if they’re very young, with a growing brain, it may be risky. There’s no definite answer.”

Shin said numerous studies are ongoing about the chemical impacts to humans and animals.

“There are many toxicology studies about those two compounds,” Shin said. “ There are some studies where it affects tumors or testicles in rats or mice, but there are many studies in those two compounds.”

Shin knew of no specific study of cattle, but mentioned that cattle were a prime component in the initial case against Dupont.

According to numerous media reports, legal actions against the chemical company first began when a West Virginia rancher named Wilbur Tennant said he lost nearly 300 cattle who drank water from a creek on his property adjacent to the company.

When asked if concerns about the chemicals could be overblown, Shin said he couldn’t be sure.

“We’ve determined there is a possible link between exposure and health effects,” Shin said. “We’re still investigating all of the health impacts from those compounds.”

Anybody worried about such chemicals in their home drinking supply, he said, would be helped by a granule-activated carbon water filter — but noted other filters could be just as effective.

• • •

In October 2015, military officials began investigating a possible PFAS contamination from a specialty firefighting foam used for years at Cannon Air Force Base, ultimately testing off-base drinking water sources. Those water sources included those used at Schaap’s farm, in August of 2018. The next month, it identified three sites in Clovis with PFAS concentrations exceeding the EPA’s lifetime health advisory and “immediately offered and provided alternate human drinking water sources,” according to an Air Force Installation and Mission Support Center public affairs specialist.

“We are working as quickly as we can — while following multi-step processes in accordance with applicable federal law and regulations — to address human drinking water impacted by our firefighting mission,” Shannon Carabajal wrote in an email to The News.

The New Mexico Environment Department’s public information officer told The News that in July of 2017 it received a work plan from the Air Force detailing its in-progress soil and groundwater sampling at Cannon. NMED only took “immediate action” to notify the public of the situation after receiving test results concerning contamination last year, but not sooner.

“We did not want to act on this until we had data,” Maddy Hayden said in a phone interview. “We don’t want to panic people if we don’t have concrete data.”

• • •

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry warns that more testing is still needed on PFAS, but notes on its website that:

• The biggest risk of PFAS exposure is drinking contaminated water, and it is far more of a concern than PFOA and PFAS on consumer products like nonstick cookware, cleaning products, stain-resistant fabric coatings, cleaning products and paints, varnishes or sealants.

• Some, but not all studies, have shown PFAS can affect infant growth, learning and behavior, lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant, alter hormone or cholesterol levels and increase cancer risks. Lab animals exposed to high PFAS doses have shown changes in hormone levels, along with liver, thyroid and pancreatic functions.

• Babies born to mothers exposed to PFAS can be exposed during pregnancy and breastfeeding, but the American Academy of Pediatrics advises to continue breastfeeding because its advantages far outweigh the potential risks.

• Blood tests for PFAS are not routine, but can be requested through a health care provider. A test can detect PFAS levels in the bloodstream, but cannot link it to current or future health issues.

Staff writer David Grieder contributed to this report.


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