The Trouble With PFOAs

by | Sep 29, 2016

Do you remember the Star Trek episode titled, “The Trouble With Tribbles”?

Lieutenant Uhura brought a Tribble back to the Enterprise after visiting Space Station K7. A Tribble, in case you forgot, is a cute and cuddly little furball of a creature that purrs when you pet it.

In no time, the Tribble’s prolific capacity for asexual reproduction resulted in thousands of Tribbles flooding the ship. Eventually, they clogged air conditioning ducts and interfered with the ship’s navigation and propulsion systems.

On the Enterprise, the Tribble went from being everyone’s little sweetheart to public enemy Number One.

PFOAs

In similar fashion, poly- or perfluoroalkyl substances (PFOAs), also known as a polyfluoro-chemicals (PFC), or just “C8”, became the darling of industries who brought us stain resistant carpeting and clothing, Teflontm and other non-stick cooking surfaces, Gore-Textm waterproofing, leak-proof paper food packaging and foam-forming fire retardant. The non-messy burgers from drive-through windows, clean frying pans from the dishwasher and Goretextm outdoor wear became everybody’s darling.

However, PFOA, besides insinuating itself into our hearts, also entered the human environment including our drinking water, food and bodies.

PFOAs were phased out by the early 2000s but have left a legacy of residual chemicals that is only now is being appreciated

The Trouble with PFOAs

Once released to the environment, PFOAs are recalcitrant to inorganic and biological degradation.

They have been found to persist for long periods of time in soil, sediment, surface and groundwater throughout the country.

PFOAs can migrate on the atmospheric wind as well as in rainwater.

For example, a recent study by Harvard scientists identified PFOAs at, or near, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water throughout the country (Hue, Et. Al. 2016).

New PFOA Regulations & Alerts

State and federal regulators are acting quickly by using emergency rulemaking procedures.

For instance, in February of this year, The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) issued an emergency rule that listed PFCs as hazardous substances under Part 597 of New York Code.

In May, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency warned the City of Dayton that PFOAs from the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base threatens their drinking water.

And in July, the USEPA issued a new health alert.

Sadly, unlike the solution to remove the tribbles in Star Trek, we cannot use a molecular transporter to “beam” the PFOAs away. They have become a part of a broad array of emerging contaminants that society will need to address.

We have published other Briefings on PFOAs, you can read them by following the links below:

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Applying scientific principles and methods to understand Earth processes and the human environment.
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