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U.S. senators seek regulation of PFASs as a class in drinking water

Biomonitoring should measure total organic fluorine rather than individual chemicals, NIH official recommends

by Cheryl Hogue
September 28, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 39

Two firefighters in protective gear at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina walk through firefighting foam in a 2009 incident.
Credit: U.S. Air Force
Some PFAS pollution stems from the use of firefighting foams.

To address contamination of drinking water with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) across the country, U.S. lawmakers are urging EPA to regulate the chemicals as a class rather than controlling each individually.

EPA has a precedent for controlling drinking water contaminants as a class, Peter C. Grevatt, director of the agency’s Office of Ground Water & Drinking Water, said at a Sept. 26 Senate hearing. EPA regulates the by-products of disinfecting public drinking water as a group, he said.

“We look forward to having that broader approach taken by EPA” for PFAS contamination, responded Sen. Gary C. Peters (D-Mich.). He and other Democrats who represent states facing PFAS contamination of some communities’ drinking water want federal help to address these pollutants.

PFASs are environmentally persistent synthetic compounds. Some are linked to health effects including cancer, developmental problems, endocrine disruption, and metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

EPA hasn’t yet determined whether it will pursue regulation of PFASs in drinking water, Grevatt said. The agency’s decision will be part of a plan, expected later this year, to address PFAS contamination. If EPA decides to regulate these compounds, a rule would not be implemented for a few years, Grevatt said, given the legal procedures the agency must follow.

Also at the hearing, Linda S. Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, recommended that biomonitoring for PFASs account for the large suite of compounds to which people can be exposed.

She said more than 4,700 PFASs are registered by CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society.

Additional compounds likely exist, formed when intentionally produced PFASs, especially polymers, break down in the environment, said Birnbaum, who also heads the National Toxicology Program. Birnbaum suggested that biomonitoring for the presence of PFASs in blood or tissue measure for total organic fluorine rather than individual compounds. Carbon-fluorine compounds are rarely found in nature, so virtually all organic fluorine in humans stems from exposure to PFASs, she said.

People are exposed to PFASs primarily by drinking tainted water, Birnbaum said. Recent studies show that people can also take in these chemicals through inhalation and via the skin, she added. Grevatt said people living near industrial sites that manufacture or use PFASs have higher exposure than the U.S. general population, as do those living in locales where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used, such as commercial airports or military bases.


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