PFAS: the “forever chemical” found in the bloodstream of 99% of Americans

I get e-mail updates whenever Steve Glass posts on his blog. Through participation in the Midwest-Great Lakes Chapter of the Society for Ecological Restoration, I’ve come to trust Steve’s leadership, wisdom, and discernment, to say nothing of his commitment to the stewardship of our common ecological home.

I was troubled to read his recent post, “Across the Nation, PFAS Are In America’s Drinking Water Supplies.” It is worth your time to read and summarizes the issue.

I had heard of PFAS because some of my in-laws live near a notorious PFAS source, a tannery near Grand Rapids, MI. I had no idea, however, how widespread these chemical were, or that they are essentially unregulated by the EPA.

From Steve, I learned that PFAS chemicals are commonly used in fire-fighting foam. I started adding foam to the water tank during our prescribed fires. Anyone who has tried to extinguish fire with water-only will soon see the night-and-day difference. This is especially true for mobile prescribed fire rigs, that can’t afford to use the massive volume that big truck tankers use to fight structure fire.

I went to check the label on my foam to see if it had PFAS. After learning how nasty PFAS has the potential to be, we would have no choice but to stop using it and find a way to dispose of it properly. As inconvenient as it would be, to continue to use it would be a violation of The Earth Charter, which states, “Prevent harm as the best method of environmental protection and, when knowledge is limited, apply a precautionary approach” (Principle II.6).

The manufacturer quickly responded to my inquiry and provided a data sheet with environmental information. It says that “Solberg Fire-Brake Class A foam concentrate does not contain any PFAS ingredients commonly found in Class B foam concentrates.”

So, that’s the good news.

The skeptic in me, however, considers human nature & the structure of incentives in statements like these. Therefore, I’m wary to take institutions and corporations at their word, especially if it would be inconvenient or expensive to admit the truth, and if the downside to this risk is significant ecological damage.

Why go to that trouble? As I was reminded by a friend, “the Earth deserves our diligence.”

As a rule, I prefer 3rd part verification for corporations, institutions, and the like. As they say, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” I’m going to bring this to the attention of several of my colleagues… if there are lingering concerns, we may need to seek out a 3rd party laboratory test to confirm this assertion.

In my research I also learned that fire-safety experts and fire-fighters’ unions are calling on governments for a PFAS ban in foams, for worker and ecological safety. Also, this scary headline from The Intercept: “The U.S. Military is spending millions to replace toxic firefighting foam with toxic firefighting foam” (I haven’t read this one yet).

Steve later followed up his first post with an update, linking to a study that found PFAS in 99% of America’s bloodstreams. He posted again more recently, noting that PFAS was also found in rainwater samples.

Steve notes some hopeful actions by the Madison, WI fire department, ceasing their use of PFAS-containing foam. “After all as one Madison fire fighter said, they live here too and drink the water and breath the same air as the rest of us.

Nationally, however, there is not yet cause for optimism.

Researchers at Northeastern University have been aggregating this PFAS news and connecting the dots. Through their work, I found the following:

*The Trump administration recently attempted to suppress a major environmental health study that showed exposure limits for PFAS should be 7 to 10 times lower than current EPA safety standards

*President Trump has also threatened to veto first ever congressional action on ‘forever chemicals’

In regards to ecological health & protection, the Federal situation is pretty dire at the moment (from PFAS to climate science to natural areas management).

One could hope that some action could be taken at local and state levels. Michigan is apparently stepping up. One could also bring these concerns to their local fire department, where fire-fighters and water-drinkers of all ages are likely at risk.

UPDATE: A reader informed me that Dr. Graham Peaslee at Notre Dame is conducting research on the presence of PFAS. See more here.

baby it’s warm outside

Talking about the weather… it never gets old. I like to joke with folks how I am constantly surprised by people who are constantly surprised about fluctuations in temperature and precipitation. I mean… weather happens, and it has always happened, so when you ask me, “Can you believe this weather?” you’d better expect dead-panned “yes”.

Ok, ok… I know that weather is just small talk, and it . But that’s what you get for asking a scientist! 🙂

Dec. 26th… Can you believe it??? Because I can.

We spent most of Christmas day in the backyard. Barefoot. Playing soccer. Finding woollybears. Watching the bees (the ones that randomly moved in at our house). Soaking up some UV rays. No kidding!

there’s treasure everywhere
They were… not happy. It was warm enough to fly around, but I doubt there were many flowers open.

As for what changing temperatures mean for Indiana, I’ll defer to the scientists at Purdue. They have released several sections of their Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment. Go have a look!

I thought you might enjoy this neat map by climate scientist Brian Brettschnider (@Climatologist49). It shows northern Indiana as having approximately even odds of having a “white Christmas” on any given year.

The day after Christmas, I was at work and took advantage of the weather. I was out by the solar panels prepping the ground for a winter-seeding of pollinator-friendly native plants (more on that in a later post).

While I was out at the solar arrays, I saw two foxes that many folks have seen scampering boldly around the grounds during the day. One is an adult and I believe the second one, which doesn’t have a full orange coat, is a juvenile. It was 9 am and the sun was just breaking above the tree tops, very beautiful. (Just hoping I can catch it sometime when I have my nice camera and not just my cell phone).

In addition to pollinator habit, the native vegetation and the cover provided by the panels themselves should also provide areas for other creatures to use: birds, mammals, herptiles (reptiles & amphibians) invertebrates, etc. I like seeing small microhabitat differences across the site: variations in shade & sun, wet & dry. It’s a great spot for a fox to hunt for mice.

One concern I had as a project manager was weather wildlife would impact the arrays (e.g. chewing on the wires). I was pleasantly shocked at how neat and clean Green Alternative’s installation was. There are few exposed wires, and underground wires are limited to the main runs to the buildings. Like any piece of infrastructure, we’ll have to keep tabs on things, but I anticipate few issues.

Something burrowing underground. Fortunately, there is almost nothing underground for this animal to run into.

Snow or no, rain or sunshine, I wish you all a Merry Christmas season and a prosperous 2020.

I pray that we will have the imagination of Mary, who was attentive to the small things, and who foresaw the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed, and the rich sent away empty.

In a world with a lot of anger, rage, and fighting, I’m pondering the words of Buckminster Fuller:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

the value of our solar arrays just went up

We like photovoltaic solar energy technology for a lot of reasons. It allows us to run everything from computers, heart monitors, heat pumps, and vehicles on sunshine. It’s modular and not very scale-dependent, so we can design arrays to match the size of our needs and add on as budget allows. It helps us get connected to the annual abundance of our earth and solar system, instead of lazily living off of millions years of compressed sunshine (fossil fuels) while passing the degradation off to the poor or our grand kids.

Prepping the ground for a pollinator friendly seed mix. Nov 2019.

From the financial-resilience side, solar also helps us control our operational costs. When you write the check for a well-designed system, installed by a crew you know is going to be around for on-going support, you are locking in your energy costs.

We made a big investment in solar this year. To our knowledge, it’s the largest solar array at an Indiana institute of higher ed (at least until 2020). When we ran the numbers, we tried to make conservative assumptions about electric rates and energy production, not wanting to set unrealistic expectations. That is, we would love to be pleasantly surprised by any unexpected upside!

We have no battery storage with our arrays, so all the electricity produced has to be instantly transferred somewhere. If there is more energy than the building is using at the moment, it goes backwards through the meter and to the next available load down the power line. Our utility, NIPSCO, measures this energy and gives us a 1:1 financial credit for this excess, an arrangement called net metering.

So if we are paying, say, $0.12 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for energy consumed from the grid at night, then the value of our excess solar energy being pushed back to the grid at noon is also worth $0.12.

Which brings me to recent news. State regulators recently approved a rate increase for NIPSCO customers. In Indiana, these state-regulated utilities are businesses that are granted a captive market (monopoly). These utilities make rate increase petitions on a periodic basis, which usually prompts push back by consumer advocates like Citizens Action Coalition and environmental advocates like the Sierra Club.

Since the cost of each kWh has gone up, so too has the value of every avoided kWh through efficiency or through solar energy production… which means that our solar panels will be more financially valuable when 2020 rolls around and rates increase.

Now, I don’t want to give in to schadenfreude for all those without solar, but it is nice to see that an asset we invested in continues to pay us back.

Lastly, a bit of news and a note on the Lindenwood solar array.

Indianapolis Power & Light (another regulated utility/business) is going to be closing two coal plants… good news! One will go dark in 2021, another in 2023. They intend to keep two more plants running for decades… but I highly suspect that economics alone will compel them to shutter the other plants before the end of their service life. Good news for all creatures who drink water and breathe air.

Lindenwood Retreat and Conference Center received 41 kW of solar this year. We had some hardware issues that delayed it’s commissioning, but our vendor worked tirelessly with the manufacture to get it running.

We have a public-facing web site that shows the solar energy production in real time. Please give it a look! Unfortunately we are now entering the “solar doldrums” season of short and cloudy days, but it has already saved more than 1 ton of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of planting 54 trees.

UPDATE: We have a page live for our Moontree solar array (2018) as well.