What are PFAS chemicals and why are they harmful?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals, including PFOA, PFOS, GenX and many other chemicals. PFAS has been manufactured throughout the world since the 1940s.
U.S. industries have phased out the production of PFOA and PFOS because of concerns for health risks. Instead, a replacement PFAS, such as GenX, is being used. Much is known about the risks of PFOS and PFOA, much less is known about the replacement PFAS that is being used in our country, all of which have ended up in our landfills.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFOA and PFOS, the most studied of these chemicals, don’t break down in the human body or the environment. These chemicals can be absorbed and accumulated in the body, and remain for long periods of time. And with continued exposure, these chemicals will build up over time causing various health problems.
Some of the health risks connected with exposure to PFAS are:
- Increased cholesterol levels.
- Low infant birth weights.
- Interference with the immune system.
- Thyroid hormone disruption.
In June of 2022 the EPA released updated health advisories for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water, two of the dangerous PFAS compounds. The health advisory for PFOA is 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt), and for PFOS it is 0.02 ppt. The current Vermont Department of Health safety standard is 20 ppt of the following compounds: PFOA, PFOS, PFHxs, PFHpA and PFNA combined. The Vermont standard allows levels of these contaminants that are exponentially higher than the levels advised by the EPA.
An important study released by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances at Wastewater Treatment Facilities and Landfill Leachate 2019 Summary Report, published by Weston and Sampson of Waterbury, Vermont summarizes that:
“The data collected to date indicate that PFAS are present in all landfill leachate and WWTF influent, effluent, and sludge tested. Relative WWTF influent and effluent PFAS concentrations are greater at facilities handling landfill leachates. The type of PFAS observed include the 5 Regulated PFAS and numerous currently unregulated PFAS that are reported to be replacement compounds for PFOA and PFOS. In many cases, the concentrations of non-Regulated PFAS exceed the 5 Regulated PFAS concentrations.”
High levels of PFAS were detected when testing two of the landfill’s monitoring wells, according to Waite Hendel, an environmental consulting firm in Burlington, Vermont. Test results showed a level of 116 ppt of PFAS in a well down gradient of the unlined, 13-acre landfill portion, nearly six times the Vermont safety standard. Test results also showed a level of 6.7 ppt adjacent to and down gradient from a lined area of the landfill.
In addition, tests in May 2018 by the environmental and infrastructure consultants Weston & Sampson concluded:
- “PFAS concentrations in landfill leachate are elevated, with the highest concentrations at the NewsVT landfill (located in Coventry.)”
- “Differences in effluent and influent PFAS concentrations at the Montpelier WWTF (waste water treatment facility) and the Newport WWTF were significant (between 18 and 80 ng/l) and may require further analysis.”
- Charts that accompanied Weston & Sampson’s report showed several chemicals testing above the set safety standards.
Leachate from the Coventry landfill is disposed at the wastewater treatment facilities (WWTF) in Montpelier Vermont and Plattsburg, New York, resulting in PFAS being dumped into the Winooski River and Saranac Rivers, both of which flow into Lake Champlain. Newport’s WWTF received landfill leachate for disposal for over nine years, and the effluent wastewater was dumped into the Clyde River that feeds into Lake Memphremagog. Because these treatment facilities are not able to remove toxic chemicals, like PFAS, they flow into the water ways where they will remain and accumulate over time.
Drinking water is one source for exposure to these chemicals. Lake Memphremagog, with two-thirds of its length extending into Canada, is the source of drinking water for 175,000 Canadians. Lake Champlain is also a major source of drinking water.
- “With PFAS drinking water limits anticipated, activists take stock of recent actions”, Megan Quinn, Wastedive, 25 Oct 2022
- “PFAS Explained”, United States Environmental Protection Agency, 28 April 2022
- “Toxic PFAS Waste That Lasts ‘Forever’ Poses Financial, Logistical Challenges for Landfills.” Crunden, E.A., Wastedive, 19 Oct 2020
- “Protection from toxic chemicals more important than ever”, Gallagher, M. (Commentary). VT Digger, 26 Aug 2020.
- “SCIENTISTS PIN BLAME FOR SOME CORONAVIRUS DEATHS ON AIR POLLUTION, PFAS, AND OTHER CHEMICALS”, Lerner , Sharon, The Intercept, 26 Jun 2020
- “High readings for PFAS found in Montpelier and Newport wastewater plants”, Gribkoff, Elizabeth, VT Digger , 2 May 2020
- “Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS”, US Environmental Protection Agency
- “PFAS Chemicals Harm the Immune System, Decrease Response to Vaccines”, Stoiber, Tasha, Environmental Working Group, 21 Jun 2019
- “EWG’S GUIDE TO AVOIDING PFAS CHEMICALS”, Environmental Working Group
- “‘FOREVER CHEMICALS’: TEFLON, SCOTCHGARD AND THE PFAS CONTAMINATION CRISIS”, Environmental Working Group
- State proposes drinking water limits for PFAS contaminants, Gribkoff, Elizabeth, VTDigger, 28 Jan 2019