Out of the Frying Pan, into the Drinking Water: Health Hazards and Community Responses to Water Contaminated with PFCs

December 20, 2016
1:00 pm US Eastern Time

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This call is part of a series of calls organized by CHE and the Boston University Superfund Research Program (BU SRP).


 image from Praveen at CreativeCommons

PFOA is a chemical that is part of a larger group of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that has been linked to health effects such as high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular and kidney cancers, pregnancy-induced hypertension and decreased birth weight. PFOA has been used to make household and commercial products that resist heat and chemical reactions, and repel oil, stains, grease and water such as nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpets and fabrics, water repellent clothing, paper and cardboard food packaging and fire-fighting foam. PFCs such as PFOA do not break down easily and therefore persist for a very long time in the environment, especially in water. Elevated levels of PFCs have been detected in over 50 public water systems in 19 states plus two Pacific island territories.  The EPA has established health advisories for PFOA and PFOS (another chemical in the PFC family) to provide the most up-to-date information on the health risks of these chemicals and to help local water systems and state, tribal and local officials take the appropriate steps to address PFOA and PFOS if needed. Despite the fact that PFOS was voluntarily phased out of production in the U.S. by its primary manufacturer, and that eight major companies have voluntarily agreed to phase out their global production of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals, scientists have found PFOA and PFOS in the blood of nearly all the people they tested, although levels have been declining.  While consumer products and food are a large source of exposure to these chemicals for most people, drinking water can be an additional source of exposure in communities where these chemicals have contaminated water supplies. The BU SRP and Toxics Action Center have been working to address well water contamination by PFOAs in North Bennington, Vermont. 

On this call speakers discussed the topics of PFC’s exposure and health, laboratory measures and challenges to interpretation of contamination and exposure data, and steps that communities have and should take when drinking water contamination by PFCs is discovered. 

Featured Speakers

TomWebsterTom Webster, DSc, is a professor of environmental health at Boston University's School of Public Health. Dr. Webster has several main research areas: 1) exposure routes and health hazards of chemicals used in consumer products, especially polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), other flame retardants, and perfluoralkyl compounds (PFCs); 2) mixtures of chemicals (with applications in toxicology and epidemiology); 3) endocrine disruption; 4) methodological aspects of environmental epidemiology, particularly issues in spatial epidemiology such as disease mapping and clusters, ecologic bias, and the use of combinations of individual and group level data. Like the rest of his department, he is very interested in the community context of environmental health. Dr. Webster served on the National Research Council’s Subcommittee on Fluoride in Drinking Water and the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Making Best Use of the Agent Orange Exposure Reconstruction Model.

ShainaKasperShaina Kasper is the Toxics Action Center's Vermont State Director working to assist local community groups to clean up hazardous waste sites and promote clean water, safe energy, and zero waste. Her organizing experience includes college zero-waste, fossil fuel divestment and housing justice work, and the JOIN for Justice fellowship. Shaina previously worked as a field organizer for Progressive Massachusetts working on economic justice and good governance issues, and as the Regional Field Director for Metro Boston West on the Raise Up Massachusetts Campaign to raise the minimum wage and provide earned sick time for all workers. She is a graduate of the United World College in New Mexico, the International Honors Program, and holds a BA in Environmental Studies and Political Science from Macalester College in Minnesota where she focused on water and sanitation.

NancyRothmanNancy Rothman, PhD, is CEO and Principal Scientist at New Environmental Horizon, Inc.  Dr. Rothman is a recognized expert in organic environmental chemistry. Dr. Rothman has over 25 years of experience in the development of methods, analysis, and data evaluation for semivolatile organic compounds (SVOC), including dioxins/furans and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and volatile organic compounds (VOC). She applies her depth of experience to evaluate usability of current and historical data and in the development and review of project-specific Work Plans and Quality Assurance Project Plans (QAPP) for environmental investigations in support of NOAA Natural Resource Damage Assessments, US EPA Superfund, US Army Corps of Engineers, and state-led programs. Dr. Rothman has successfully provided expert testimony and litigation support for complex environmental data issues involving analyses of polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), VOCs, and PCBs.

This call was moderated by Dr. Wendy Heiger-Bernays. It lasted for 1 hour and was recorded for our call archive.