A Tale of Ten Thousand PFAS

By Olivia Miller

Like many, a few months ago, I heard rumblings about PFAS—the latest dreadful man-made chemicals to be on the watch for at every turn of my day—potentially in the tap water I drink, definitely in my GORE-TEX lined hiking shoes, rain jacket, and that old Teflon pan sitting in the back of my cabinet. What about that pizza box from takeout the other night?

Like any concerned citizen, I went to the internet in a fury. Is it possible to boil PFAS out of water? No. Were there any products on the market that could filter out PFAS from the tap? Likely not to the EPA’s recommended limit. How long have we known about this? Since the 1950s. What is being done about it? Something IS actually being done about it! Phew.

What we’ve all learned about PFAS recently is that they do not break down and accumulate over time in humans, animals, and the environment, making the call to regulate them and remove them from our water systems even more urgent. 

It’s a hard pill to swallow—realizing that you have been unknowingly exposing yourself to toxic substances that have been proven to decrease fertility, cause birth defects, suppress your immune system, decrease resistance to vaccines, and cause various other irreparable harms to your body. 

Unfortunately, this is the world we live in today. 

My mother-in-law called me earlier this week, telling me about the beautiful crappies my father-in-law caught for dinner at Parker Hollow Lake in Hardy County. My heart sank into my stomach. Earlier in the day I had just read the latest study that found that PFAS chemicals have been detected at significantly high levels in freshwater fish in all 48 continental states of the United States. 

Should I be the one to spoil their dinner and alert them to the dangers of PFAS levels in recreationally caught fish? Would they tell me to hit the road?

It is impossible to know how to navigate these situations. It seems as though new information comes to light almost every day that exposes harms that were known long ago but have only recently made its way to the headlines. 

In fact, as far back as 1950, studies conducted by 3M—producers of popular products like Scotch tape—showed that the family of toxic fluorinated chemicals now known as PFAS could build up in our blood. By the 1960s, more studies were done by 3M and Dupont on animals, revealing that PFAS chemicals could pose health risks. The companies kept these studies secret from their employees and the public for decades. 

In 2016, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) set the first lifetime health advisory for PFOA and PFOS—types of PFAS—in drinking water to 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Today, the most recent health advisory set by the EPA for PFOA and PFOS has dropped considerably setting the safe consumption limit to 0.004 ppt and 0.0002 ppt respectively. 

Although some of these chemicals have been largely phased out by manufacturers under pressure from the EPA, these substances are still circulating in the country via imports, and they persist in drinking water, people and the environment. 

We now know that the PFAS problem has turned into a global problem, and because of their widespread persistence in the environment, PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world, especially in industrialized regions and near pollution discharge sources. 

A few findings on freshwater fish and PFAS:

  • Researchers have calculated that one freshwater fish serving can be equivalent to drinking water for a month at 48 ppt PFOS. 
  • U.S. EPA fish testing in 2013-2015 had a median PFAS concentration of 11,800 ppt.
  • A biomonitoring study of fisherman near Onondaga Lake, a sacred lake within the indigenous territory of the Onondaga Nation and one of the most polluted lakes in the world, found the most frequent consumers of freshwater fish had PFAS levels in their blood at 9.5 and 26.9 times the general U.S. median. 
  • In the Great Lakes region, licensed fisherman, and specifically fisherman from the Burmese immigrant community had median PFAS levels that ranged from two and six times the U.S. population average.

To date, fish consumption advice regarding PFAS is inconsistent or absent in the U.S.

We know that climate change does not affect us all equally. Individuals most impacted by the changing climate and environmental degradation are indigenous and poor and marginalized communities. Indeed, there are still communities around the world who rely on fishing as a way to survive, and those whose cultures are deeply intertwined with the practice of fishing. 

We are only now being to realize the full extent of PFAS contamination and harm to human health and there is still a great deal to be uncovered, as evidenced by the new study on fish. 

It should be noted that in WV, PFAS have been found in the pre-treated water for 130 water systems serving approximately 700,000 West Virginian’s, after the Legislature passed SCR 46 in 2020, requesting a study of PFAS for all community water systems in West Virginia. 

The WV Senate introduced a bill this January, SB 485 — The PFAS Protection Act, to address this problem.

The EPA is also moving forward to take regulatory action for greater protection against PFAS in the country’s water, land, and air and hold polluters accountable.