The Trump administration today released a politically charged study on the health impacts of perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, including the compound known as C8, which has been detected in some water systems in the Ohio Valley.
The draft report, released by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), finds these fluorinated chemicals, which are used in some nonstick products and flame retardants, can endanger human health at levels 7 to 10 times lower than the Environmental Protection Agency had previously said were safe.
Pressure on the Trump administration has been mounting for weeks to publicly disseminate the study. A growing number of lawmakers and advocacy groups have pressed the White House for action following news reports that the EPA had blocked its release.
Both West Virginia Senators, Joe Manchin (D) and Shelley Moore Capito (R), praised the release of ATSDR’s report.
“After repeatedly pushing the administration to make these findings public, I’m very glad to see it release this study today,” Capito said in a news release. “The information contained in the report will help determine potential threats our communities face as a result of certain water contamination issues.”
The report, or toxicological profile, draws upon the best available research. At 852 pages, it is aimed at giving public health officials a comprehensive picture of how fluorinated chemicals may affect human health as well as highlight the different ways people may be exposed to them.
The study finds people are exposed to fluorinated chemicals in a variety of ways including through contaminated soil and water, food packaging laced with the chemicals and some more directly by living near plants that manufactured C8.
It finds exposure to high levels of some fluorinated chemicals may affect fertility, increase cholesterol levels and increase the risk of thyroid disease.
Olga Naidenko, senior science advisor with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization, said the analysis especially highlights how these chemicals are toxic to developing fetuses, pregnant women and young children.
“ATSDR’s profile really highlighted how very low, low doses can be harmful to developing fetuses, but also, for example, to the immune systems of young kids,” she said. “That’s something that EPA’s profile didn’t do.”
In 2016, the EPA issued a health advisory for some PFAS chemicals, including PFOA, or C8, and the related compound PFOS, often linked to flame retardant foam sprays.
The EPA says water contaminated with more than 70 parts-per-trillion is unsafe to drink. Naidenko said since the EPA conducted its own study of these chemicals, much more research has been published, and that research was included in this new report.
“It certainly represents a science and policy advance on this important issue,” she said.
Understanding how exposure to C8 and other fluorinated chemicals affects human health hits close to home in the Ohio Valley. Some municipalities in Ohio and West Virginia have been dealing with C8 contamination for decades.
DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, dumped over 7,000 tons of C8 sludge in a nearby landfill where it leached out. The chemical polluted streams and exposure killed nearby livestock in the late 1990s. A lawsuit against DuPont on behalf of residents resulted in a settlement and established health studies which have expanded the knowledge of health risks.
In 2016, PFOA and PFOS contaminated firefighting foam used by the National Guard contaminated the city’s drinking water plant in Martinsburg, West Virginia. The city paid $4.5 million to install water treatment filters, and recently sued the National Guard for damages to recoup those costs.
The new report also recommends Minimal Risk Levels (MRLs) for some PFAS chemicals. MRLs are an estimate of the amount of a chemical a person can eat, drink or breathe each day without it posing a health risk. Public health officials at both a federal and state level use these health-based values to determine if a community is at risk from chemical exposure.
ATSDR only suggested levels for oral ingestion of some PFAS chemicals. For PFOA and PFOS, the risk levels listed were far lower than what the EPA considers safe. The agency will take comments on the toxicological profile for 30 days.