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Persistent Pollutants

PFAS pollution likely at thousands of US manufacturing sites

Study says plastics, detergent, coatings, and lubricant plants have presumptive contamination

by Cheryl Hogue
October 12, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 37

Firefighters from the Joint Forces Training Base Fire Department at Los Alamitos, California, work to extinguish a simulated aircraft fire, April 16, 2018.
Credit: U.S. Air National Guard/Senior Airman Crystal Housman
Sites used to train firefighters, like this one in Los Alamitos, California, should be presumed to have PFAS pollution, researchers say.

Thousands of chemical-related manufacturing sites across the US should be presumed to have “forever chemical” pollution, a team of researchers conclude in a study published Oct. 12 (Environ. Sci. Tech. Lett. 2022, DOI: 10.1021/acs.estlett.2c00502).

These include facilities that produce paints and coatings, petroleum-based lubricating oils and grease, plastic materials and resins, and soaps and detergents.

They are among the 57,412 untested sites across the US that the researchers say are likely contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). But high-quality sampling data do not exist to determine the extent of such pollution. PFAS are a family of synthetic, environmentally persistent chemicals used widely in industrialized society. Some of these molecules are highly toxic at extremely low levels.

The untested, presumed contaminated sites targeted in the study fall into three categories, the study says. One includes industrial and commercial facilities that produce or use PFAS. A second covers locales where PFAS-containing foam was used to fight fires, including airplane and train crash sites, chemical manufacturing plants, airports, and civilian and military firefighter training facilities. The third consists of waste-handling operations such as sewage treatment plants, landfills, and incinerators.

“PFAS contamination at these locations is very likely,” says Alissa Cordner, a Whitman College sociology professor, senior author on the paper, and codirector of the PFAS Project Lab based at Northeastern University.

“We know that PFAS testing is very sporadic, and there are many data gaps in identifying known sites of PFAS contamination,” Cordner says in a statement. So the research team came up with a model that identified sites that are likely contaminated with PFAS.

The results of the model can help governments, industries, and communities to identify potential sources of PFAS pollution expeditiously so they can address contamination, the researchers conclude. They add that the number of sites they identified with their model is likely an underestimation.

The chemical industry group American Chemistry Council (ACC) says the paper appears to conflate all PFAS chemicals. “This is scientifically inaccurate and inappropriate. All PFAS are not the same,” the ACC says in an emailed statement. Each PFAS has a unique hazard profile, it adds.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy organization that has tracked PFAS contamination for years, notes that its published research has identified similar potential sources of these chemicals. This work along with the new paper lead to a similar conclusion, EWG senior scientist David Andrews says in an emailed statement. “Comprehensive PFAS testing is urgently needed to identify contamination.”



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