Mapping technology identifies fire-fighting chemicals in water and lasting effects on immune systems

By on August 13, 2016
Contaminated Drinking Water Found in California

A new study in Environmental Science & Technology Letters (ES&T Letters) has found that aqueous fire-fighting foams, used to extinguish fuel fires and during training exercises at airports and military bases, that contain highly fluorinated chemicals, are a primary source of these same chemicals in drinking water. These same cancer-causing and highly fluorinated chemicals are polluting lakes, streams, rivers and the drinking water of some six million Americans as well as the next generation.

Sophisticated mapping technology is now being used by researchers to trace the major sources of contamination – industrial sites, airports, military bases and wastewater treatment plants – and link the contaminants to drinking water and ultimately to women’s blood and then next generation.

Highly fluorinated chemicals have been scrutinized and the research shows an association with high cholesterol, kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, obesity, thyroid disruption, ulcerative colitis, lower birth weight and size and hormone changes.

These same chemicals have been found to have lasting effects on the immune systems of adolescents who were exposed to them in the womb and early in life. A recent second linked higher exposure to these chemicals in mothers with a shorter duration of breastfeeding.

“During fire-fighting practice drills, large volumes of these toxic chemicals wash into surface and ground waters and can end up in our drinking water,” said Dr. Arlene Blum, co-author of the study and Executive Director of the Green Science Policy Institute, “Such persistent chemicals should only be used when essential, and never for training.”

Although a new generation of shorter-chain fluorinated chemicals are replacing older long-chain substances they, too, pose a threat to water sources. “Like the older substances, these other fluorinated compounds do not break down in the environment and may be similarly toxic,” said Dr. Elsie Sunderland from Harvard University, senior author of the study. “There are non-fluorinated fire-fighting foams that should be considered for use instead,” notes Blum.

Levels of contaminants in drinking water were measured in the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR3) study. At least six million people have drinking water that exceeds the recent EPA health advisory levels for contaminants, especially perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), according to the study.

Lead author Cindy Hu from Harvard University notes that “Government data for levels of these compounds in drinking water is lacking for almost a third of the U.S. population or about 100 million people.”

“UCMR3 testing included very few small public water supplies and no private drinking water wells,” explains Dr. Laurel Schaider, a water research expert at Silent Spring Institute. “Some 44 million Americans get their drinking water from private wells, so additional water supplies should be tested.”

Another study by Philippe Grandjean of the Harvard School of Public Health has also linked early life exposure to PFOA and PFOS to reduced immune responses that persist into adolescence. Recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the study also found that mothers with higher exposures to these substances were only capable of breastfeeding their children for a shorter time span, possibly due to adverse effects on hormonal functions.

“The EPA advisory limit for PFOA and PFOS is much too high to protect against toxic effects on the immune system,” according to Dr. Grandjean. “And the available water data only reveals the tip of an iceberg of contaminated drinking water.” Dr. Grandjean continued saying, “Our research has documented harm to the human immune system from these substances at levels much below those that were detectable in the UCMR3 data base and even more water supplies are likely to contaminated at these low levels.”

Also based on the EPA’s data, yet another study found women with elevated blood levels of PFOA and PFOS when their water supply was contaminated with the chemicals. Specifically, PFOA and PFOS levels were 38 percent and 29 percent higher in women with detectable levels of the contaminants in their drinking water.

Dr. Myrto Petreas of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, and an author of the study, said, “Our study shows that toxic and highly persistent fluorochemicals are making their way from drinking water into people’s bodies. It underscores the importance of reducing the use of these chemicals whenever possible to protect our drinking water and our health.”