New R.I.-Based Program Takes Aim at Growing Chemical Threat
Alphabet soup of industrial compounds linked to cancer have been accumulating in our bodies for five decades
December 4, 2017
PROVIDENCE — Perfluorinated compounds have long been used in the production of Teflon, in non-stick coatings applied to pizza boxes and popcorn bags, and to waterproof outdoor clothing. These widely used industrial chemicals have been found in the ocean, in the food chain, and in drinking-water supplies. They also have been linked to cancer.
PFAS started accumulating in the environment and people’s bodies more than 50 years ago, according to Philippe Grandjean, professor of environmental health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He said they were first used because it was assumed these highly stable and nonreactive compounds were innocuous.
“We now know they are not,” Grandjean said. “These compounds are in our bodies. They’re all over the world. We’re decades late addressing this issue.”
A new Superfund Research Program Center at the University of Rhode Island has been created to play catch-up. The five-year, grant-funded project is a partnership with scientists from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Newton, Mass.-based Silent Spring Institute, and will make use of URI’s various academic disciplines, from pharmaceutical to engineering to oceanography. The project is designed to identify and reduce the risks of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) that pose a threat to public health.
PFASs, which have been manufactured since the 1950s for use in myriad products because of their unique oil- and water-repellent properties, have been linked to kidney and testicular cancers, childhood obesity, thyroid disease, colitis, and suppression of the immune system, especially in children.
The Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS (STEEP) program will provide an integrated approach to the problem, according to those responsible for the center’s creation.
The stable but toxic PFAS family includes perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used in the manufacturing of Teflon; perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), used to make speciality plastics; and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), the key ingredient in Scotchgard.
The problem with these compounds is that their stain-repellant and other advantageous consumer properties are long-lasting. Basically, these substances don’t break down. They bioaccumulate. As with dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane (DDT), the celebrated stability of these compounds later turned out to be problematic.
Last year Harvard University researchers found that PFASs exceeded recommended safety levels in public drinking-water supplies for at least 6 million residents in 33 states.
The state of New Jersey recently issued mandatory drinking-water testing for PFOA and PFNA, at levels lower than those required by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA has set a maximum threshold for perfluorinated compounds at 70 nanograms per liter in drinking water.
Focused research on the health risks associated with the environmental accumulation of PFASs only began about a decade ago. Much of that work has been researched by Rainer Lohmann, professor of oceanography at URI and the grant’s principal investigator.
He noted that a replacement compound for PFOA has already been found in the environment.
“GenX has already been detected in very high concentrations in the Cape Fear (N.C.) watershed, highlighting the whack-a-mole approach to chemical legislation sill prevailing in the United States,” Lohmann said. “Produce a chemical until it is banned, at which point you substitute with a similar chemical, until sufficient evidence is gathered to question the safety of the replacement chemicals … so the increase in emerging contaminants continues.”
He said the problems linked to PFASs have been compounded by industry negligence and a lack of regulatory oversight. He noted that other countries have much stricter limits and better monitoring.
In fact, PFASs, which often reach people through contaminated groundwater, are largely unregulated in the United States. Sources include landfills, chemical manufacturers, industrial users, and airports and fire-training sites that use foam to extinguish fires. The chemicals are persistent because they don’t break down when exposed to air, water or sunlight, and can travel long distances, exposing people and other living things in environments thousands of miles away.
URI’s new Superfund Research Program Center will rely on best available science and collaboration.
“This is an important public-health issue,” said Judith Swift, director of URI’s Coastal Institute. “These compounds need to be recognized and managed appropriately.”
One of the two focus areas of research is on Cape Cod, in and around Barnstable County, where PFASs have entered drinking water from firefighting foams used at Joint Base Cape Cod and the county fire training academy.
The other research area is in the Faroe Islands, an archipelago between the Norwegian Sea and the North Atlantic, about halfway between Norway and Iceland, where PFAS exposure is largely from consumer goods, with small exposure tied to the consumption of pilot whales caught by the local fishing industry.
“These compounds seem to be a particular problem during early development, and our complex immune system appears to be highly vulnerable,” Grandjean said. “We are now carrying out in-depth examinations of a cohort of close to 500 children (in the Faroe Islands) that we have followed since they were born. We are determining if health problems they are experiencing can be traced to accumulated exposures or to previous exposures.”
He noted that PFASs are making vaccinations less effective, contaminating drinking water, and finding their way into human milk.
“These chemicals are in mothers’ milk and they are compromising the immune system of young children,” Grandjean said.
Grandjean and colleague Elsie Sunderland will be studying how these industrial compounds accumulate in water and in fish, and how exposures in children lead to changes in immune-system functions and other health outcomes.
“We need to learn as much as possible about these chemicals so that we can develop solutions to better control toxic exposures,” Grandjean said. “Our findings will hopefully provide new evidence on the need to limit current exposures and how to prevent chemicals with similar properties from entering the environment. This is a tall order and we know it.”
Community involvement will be a priority on Cape Cod, as Superfund Research Program Center scientists and staffers will work to keep the public and local officials informed about the project’s progress and results. Professional training also will be implemented to prepare a next generation of researchers who will be aware of all aspects of the contaminants and how to identify their presence.
“PFASs are truly ubiquitous these days,” Lohmann said. “They can be found in polar bears, in all major oceans, and in the blood of humans around the globe.”
As one of the few national Superfund Research Program centers in the country — there’s also one at Brown University — Lohmann said the new URI-led center will work closely with communities and scientists to share knowledge and help inform people about this growing public-health problem.
A Dec. 4 morning press event at the Rhode Island Foundation was complemented that afternoon by an event in Hyannis, Mass., a Cape Cod community that has been working to address this issue for seven years.
Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at the Silent Spring Institute, said the organization will continue to expand its efforts with local communities to address PFAS health effects and concerns. In 2010, the Silent Spring Institute discovered PFAS in Cape Cod drinking water.
The institute’s 2016 study found that pollutants from household wastewater can make their way into private wells, and that backyard septic systems are likely to blame. The findings reinforce growing concerns about the health risks posed by unregulated chemicals in drinking water, such as PFAS, according to Schaider, the study’s co-author.
In tests of water samples from private wells on Cape Cod, Silent Spring Institute researchers found 27 unregulated contaminants, including a dozen different pharmaceuticals, a variety of chemicals used in non-stick coatings, flame retardants and an artificial sweetener.
Schaider said last year’s study was the first to show septic systems as sources of PFASs in drinking water from private wells. Given that 85 percent of residents on Cape Cod rely on septic systems, she noted that the risk of contaminated water is a real concern.
“These chemicals are so widely used in products and we need to find out how they move through the environment,” she said.
In August, URI received a $8 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to research how these industrial compounds get into water supplies and harm humans. The grant proposal took two years to write.
“There’s likely to be bad news coming from this research,” Grandjean said. “We need to present it in a constructive way … to prevent this from happening again.”