Can I drink my water? What you need to know about PFOA

For months, we have heard about the dire situation regarding drinking water in Flint, Mich. Lead in Flint’s water has potentially poisoned thousands of children’s bodies and brains. And now in southern New Hampshire and the Seacoast, residents are concerned about the safety of their drinking water, especially from their own wells.     

It started in May 2014 when levels of perfluorochemicals (PFCs) higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level were found in the Haven well that supplies drinking water to Pease Tradeport in Portsmouth.

In Merrimack, the alarm was sounded in March 2016 when Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, on Daniel Webster Highway in Merrimack, notified the state’s Department of Environmental Services that PFOA had been detected in four drinking water faucets at the plant, at levels of 30 parts per trillion. (The EPA health advisory level was recently lowered to 70 parts per trillion. One part per trillion is the equivalent of one drop in four, three million gallon reservoirs of water.)

PFCs had been found near another Saint-Gobain facility in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., on the border with Vermont, and in February a federal class action lawsuit was filed against the company. Previous owners of the New York property are also suspected of contributing to the contamination, leading to PFOA being detected in drinking water 10 miles south.

Because of these results, Saint-Gobain tested drinking water at the Merrimack plant, which comes from the Merrimack Village District, the municipal water supplier. After PFOA was detected, the MVD took wells number 4 and 5, which supply water to the Saint-Gobain plant, offline, until they can be treated.

Then the investigation started, with the testing of about 600 private water wells within a mile-and -a-half radius of the Saint-Gobain facility.

Besides Pease Tradeport and Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics, other areas of concern in New Hampshire are in Salem at a construction debris landfill, and in the area of what used to be Textiles Coated Inc. in Amherst.

What are PFOA and PFOS?

PFOA is perfluorooctanoic acid and PFOS is perfluorooctane sulfonic acid. Both are types of perfluorochemicals, or PFCs, and are considered toxic chemicals. (There are more than 20 types of PFCs.)

PFOA and PFOS are fluorinated organic chemicals used to make clothing, carpets, upholstery, food packaging (e.g., lining microwave popcorn bags) and cookware (think Teflon) to make the materials resistant to water, grease and stains.

These chemicals were also used in firefighting, particularly at airfields, such as Pease Tradeport, and in the plastics industry. They don’t break down or degrade in the environment.

How do they get in the water and how prevalent are they?

Manufacturers who use PFCs release these compounds through smokestacks into the air. This is why wells in Litchfield are affected, because winds blow east from Merrimack. The toxins work their way into the groundwater and drinking water wells over time.

However, according to the EPA, “Because these chemicals have been used in an array of consumer products, most people have been exposed to them.”

The primary manufacturer of PFOA and PFOS stopped making the compounds in 2002, and eight companies pledged to stop using PFOA by 2015. (There are “a limited number of ongoing uses” of PFOA and related chemicals, the EPA notes.)

According to NH DES, people are most likely to be exposed to PFCs by drinking contaminated water and eating contaminated food. Chemical and plastics industry workers may be exposed to much greater amounts of PFCs than the general public.

PFCs are an ‘emerging issue’

The Safe Drinking Water Act is the federal law that protects drinking water. However, although there are more than a dozen potential contaminants listed that are tested for regularly by municipal/public water systems, the SDWA does not mention PFCs.

According to NH DES Public Information Officer James Martin, “PFCs are an emerging contaminant and are not a regulated contaminant under the Safe Drinking Water Act, unlike arsenic, for example.”

In the Saint-Gobain investigation area, NH DES has tested close to 600 wells, reaching out to almost every private well owner, also some public water wells, within a mile-and-a-half radius of the plant.

This is an expensive, sophisticated process, Martin said, because of the minuteness of the particles.

“Typically we’re looking at ppm or parts per million. This is the first time our agency has looked down to parts per trillion levels.”

NH DES is trying to find “the edge” of contamination, “where we're no longer seeing elevated levels of contaminants,” Martin added. You can view maps indicating affected wells online.

Health risk

According to the EPA, exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants; cancer, including testicular and kidney cancer; ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol, and damage to the liver; immune system and thyroid issues.

The EPA’s advisory levels are calculated to offer protection to the “most sensitive” or vulnerable populations, including fetuses and breastfed infants. Of course, infants fed formula made with contaminated water are also vulnerable.

The problem is that as an emerging issue no one knows the long-term health effects. Also there are many variables: length and amount of exposure, age, kind of exposure (mainly through drinking water), occupational versus residential, amounts in the water (which can vary from test to test), etc.

Blood tests of people who worked at Pease Tradeport showed varying results. Male firefighters with longer exposure to PFCs, for example, had higher levels of three compounds in their blood.

Toddlers and younger children who attended the child care center there also had some higher results, perhaps because they have greater “hand-to-mouth” exposure beyond drinking water. In other words, whatever they touch often goes right to their mouths. 

Is there a “safe” level?

The 70 ppt number set forth by the EPA is for total lifetime exposure to either PFOA, PFOS, or both combined. When Saint-Gobain reported their tap water levels to the Merrimack Village District water company, the levels were 30 ppt.

Levels of PFOA in private wells vary. Of 579 wells sampled in Litchfield, for example, with 52 percent of results in, 166 have levels greater than 70 ppt. In 62 wells near the Merrimack landfill, one had a level greater than 70 ppt. MVD wells 4 and 5, which were taken offline, measured at the borderline of 70 ppt, according to NH DES.

The EPA advises that if drinking water samples reveal PFOA and PFOS at individual or combined concentrations greater than 70 parts per trillion or ppt, “Water systems should quickly undertake additional sampling to assess the level, scope and localized source of contamination to inform next steps.”

“PFOAs are one of the major moving targets in the environment in affected residences and businesses with wells in the U.S. right now,” attorney Robin Greenwald of the Weitz and Luxenberg law firm in New York City told an audience at Southern New Hampshire University in June.

The law firm, which has been involved in similar cases of contamination in New York and Vermont, said they are gathering evidence for an injunction and held the presentation at SNHU to solicit potential clients and learn more about the local situation.

The issue of PFOAs is “so in the public eye and part of the dialogue” now, it’s “going to be very difficult to sweep it under the rug,” Greenwald added.

The attorneys listed potential “injuries” of having PFOAs in the water. Besides the risk of serious illness, they noted that property values may be adversely affected.

Audience members spoke of chronic illness including intestinal issues, cancer, and the unusual death of four pets in a short span of time due to an unknown cause.

Greenwald urged them to begin “medical monitoring” surveillance for early detection of problems, and suggested they keep every receipt related to problems suspected of being from PFC exposure, from medical costs to buying bottled water.

The attorney also spoke about the stress involved with not being able to trust your well water.

If a disease is found to have been associated with exposure to PFOA, Greenwald said, “The law allows you to seek damages.”

Bottled water deliveries, paid for by Saint-Gobain, are being coordinated by NH DES in areas where private well levels of PFOA have been detected above the advisory level.

Adding to the confusion is that PFC levels of the same sample of water tested can vary slightly from one laboratory to another, and may vary from month to month in the same well.

Other SNHU audience members voiced concerns beyond drinking water, to the effects of bathing and washing in contaminated water.

But at a July presentation in Merrimack put on by NH DES, that audience was told that the primary concern was exposure to the chemicals through drinking water. Among the many panelists were a hydrologist, commissioners from DES and the Department of Health and Human Services, and the state epidemiologist.

An audience of about 100 was told that PFCs bind to water and sink, so they don’t accumulate in moving bodies of water such as the Merrimack River, and don’t accumulate in skin, so swimming and boating are OK.

Emissions of PFCs from the plant do not remain on the soil so food from personal vegetable gardens and Litchfield farms is safe to eat. (The soil at the farms tested at less than 1 part per billion of PFOA which is very low. Note that in soil, PFCs are measured in parts per billion, not trillion.)

PFOA also does not have that long of a “half-life,” that is, period of time it remains in the body, according to the EPA. However, the C6 type of PFC found at Pease Tradeport remains in bodies longer.

Are water filters effective at removing PFCs?

Public water is typically filtered with special, multi-element carbon filters, which will remove PFOA to undetectable levels. Reverse osmosis is another process. The NH DES has a fact sheet on in-home drinking water filtration options, but by the end of the two-pager, you may be more confused than when you started.

That’s because filters that work for some issues, like odors and poor taste, are ineffective for invisible, odorless PFCs. And some filtration systems that can lessen the amount of PFCs may actually concentrate radon, if your water has elevated levels of this naturally occurring and dangerous radioactive gas. You should rely on professional advice.

DES recommends a carbon-based “point-of-entry” system or POE that treats all of the water coming in to your home. Carbon filters (sometimes called GAC, for granular activated carbon) that attach to drinking water faucets, in icemakers and refrigerators, may remove objectionable odors or taste, but are not certified to remove PFCs.

Peter Collins, owner of Culligan of New Hampshire, a water-treatment company, says they’ve been “slammed” with inquiries, because “a lot of people are rightfully concerned.”

Many homeowners with private wells may have never had their water tested and are looking into EPA and NH DES recommendations now.

“They may not live in an area where this is a concern, but now they’re becoming aware and being proactive. We try to get them good information,” Collins said. Culligan is a member of the national Water Quality Association.

Culligan does free non-health-related testing for hardness, iron, pH, and aesthetic issues such as clarity and taste. Some of these issues can also wreak havoc on plumbing and appliances. But they send water samples for health-related contaminants testing to the state-certified lab. Then the customer and Culligan get copies of the results to see if remediation is needed.

As with so many man-made environmental problems, we don’t know what we don’t know. In other words, the long-term effects of drinking water with PFOA above the health advisory level remain to be seen.

State epidemiologist Benjamin Chan, M.D., M.P.H. said at the Merrimack meeting that blood testing to determine specific blood PFC levels will be done on those receiving bottled water, to “understand the levels of PFC exposure in the community.”

If eligible and interested in being tested, you need to register at the Public Inquiry Line (603-271-9461), sign a consent form and fill out a questionnaire. Then your blood can be drawn at Southern New Hampshire Medical Center in Nashua.

Dr. Chan noted that this is an exposure test only, that they can’t tell where any exposure to PFCs may have come from given their prevalence in the environment, and that this is not a medical or health-related test.

“We can’t predict risk or health problems” related to the blood serum levels, he said. There is currently no treatment to remove PFCs from the body, but blood levels decrease slowly over time, he added.  

Note: Saint-Gobain North America did not respond to phone calls for comment on this article.

Mary Ellen Hettinger, APR is an award-winning reporter, editor and writer, and accredited public relations professional.