An Emerging Family of Contaminants:  PFAS

PFAS are a family of complex compounds primarily consisting of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). 

PFAS have very useful properties and therefore were included in many products in the past. PFASs have often been used to make materials stain-resistant, waterproof, and/or nonstick.  When added to fire-fighting foam, these chemicals are very effective at fighting petroleum product-based fires, and therefore the foam has been extensively used by fire departments, airports, and at military bases.

Other examples of products that may contain PFAS:

  • – ​Cookware (i.e. Teflon®, Nonstick)
  • – Fast food containers
  • – Candy wrappers
  • – Microwave popcorn bags
  • – Personal care products (shampoo, dental floss)
  • – Cosmetics (nail polish, eye makeup)
  • – Paints and varnishes

  • ​- Stain resistant carpet
  • – Stain resistant chemicals (i.e. Scotchgard®)
  • – Water resistant apparel (i.e. Gore-Tex®)
  • – Cleaning products
  • – Electronics
  • – Ski wax

In the 1980s and 1990s, studies found PFAS in blood samples from a large percentage of non-occupationally exposed people around the world.  By 2002, the primary manufacturers in the United States began to phase out production, which was achieved by 2015. 

 Are PFAS harmful to humans?  EPA findings suggest that PFAS may: 

  • – Affect the developing fetus and child, including possible changes in growth, learning, and behavior;
  • – Decrease fertility and interfere with the body’s natural hormones;
  • – Increase cholesterol;
  • – Affect the immune system; and/or
  • – Increase cancer risk.

While the potential health effects are not conclusive, what is known is that PFAS are very persistent in the environment and are being detected in soil, water and in our bodies, where PFAS can bioaccumulate.  Their persistence can make site remediation difficult. 

A company in Merrimack, New Hampshire in 2016 found PFAS in their tap water, which was supplied by a nearby water district.  They notified the New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services (NHDES) who began sampling public and private wells in the area.  PFAS contamination was found to be widespread.  NHDES expanded their sampling to fire departments in southern and central New Hampshire and PFAS were found in nearby private wells.  NHDES is working to get these areas served by public water.

The New England states established a drinking water guideline for PFAS of 0.00007 parts per million (0.07 parts per billion or 70 parts per trillion).  New Hampshire recently enacted regulatory changes to add PFAS to their drinking water standard.  The Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is focusing initial investigation efforts on the former Loring and Brunswick naval air stations because of the use of foam during fire-fighting training.  

What’s next?  Other current and former remediation sites may be re-evaluated for this emerging contaminant, and adding PFAS to groundwater sampling at high risk sites will likely begin soon.  For more information regarding this and other emerging contaminants, contact Keith Taylor at 207-591-7000, extension 22.