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Water tainted with perfluorocarbons by U.S. military is focus of legislation

House of Representatives passes bill that would require study of health effects, impacts of potential drinking water regulation on development of substitutes

by Zack Colman, special to C&EN
July 18, 2017

Credit: U.S. Air Force/Greg L. Davis
Congress wants the Pentagon to study possible health impacts from drinking water tainted with perfluorocarbons from fire-fighting foams.

The Pentagon would have to study whether drinking water tainted with perfluorinated chemicals used in firefighting causes health problems under a bill the U.S. House of Representatives passed on July 14.

The proposed 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 2810) includes provisions on perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), collectively known as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs). The chemicals persist in the environment indefinitely and have been linked to disease in people.

The military in the 1970s began using aqueous film-forming foam containing PFOA and other perfluorinated compounds that can degrade to PFOA or PFOS. Scientists have recently linked use of the foam at military installations to contamination of drinking water with PFASs. The Department of Defense is assessing its use of these substances and potential substitutes for them.

The bill would instruct the Pentagon to study the health of people who drank PFOS- or PFOA-contaminated water on or near current or former military installations. That study would include biomonitoring of community members and would have to be completed within five years.

The measure brings up the possibility that the Environmental Protection Agency might cap the amount of PFASs allowed in drinking water. EPA set a nonbinding health advisory level for PFASs in drinking water at 70 ppt in May 2016 but has not set a legally enforceable limit for these substances.

The bill would ask the Pentagon to consider whether setting an enforceable maximum would pose any significant challenges to the development of PFAS substitutes or the military’s cleanup of contamination.

The Senate is working on its own version of the legislation (S.1519), which is silent on PFASs.

CORRECTION: This story was updated on July 19, 2017, to reflect that the EPA advisory level is 70 parts per trillion.



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J. Goldbach (July 19, 2017 3:30 PM)
The PFAS advisory level is 70ppt, not 70ppm. I don't know how anyone can accurately measure 70ppt levels of PFAS in a lab, let alone an industrial water facility.
Alexander Klibanov (July 19, 2017 7:50 PM)
Please correct the title of this article: for a chemist, formally, neither PFOA nor PFOS are perfluorocarbons.

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