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.

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