PFAS pollution more widespread than originally thought

Posted: June 26, 2020


Historically, much of the research related to the release and subsequent epidemiological effects of the use of fluoropolymers such as perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), has concentrated on those communities located downstream from manufacturing facilities. New research, however, indicates that contamination of the environment is also occurring downwind from facilities that utilize these materials and their replacements, and at higher rates and greater distances away, than previously thought.

Linda Weavers (L) and Andrew May (R)

CEGE environmental engineering professors Linda Weavers and Andrew May were part of a research team that collected 94 surface and drinking water samples and 13 soil samples at various distances from a fluoropolymer production facility in Parkersburg, WV. The team found PFOA, which was used as a fluoropolymer manufacturing aid at the facility from 1951 to 2013, in concentrations exceeding 1000 ng/L in all surface water samples at 13 sites within a nearly five mile radius of the plant. Ohio State undergrad Jason E. Galloway (lead author), environmental sciences graduate program student Angelica V.P. Moreno and scientists from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) were co-authors of the study.

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, known as PFAS, which were used in the manufacture of products such as cookware, carpeting and firefighting foams, have the potential to be a health concern. These very stable chemicals do not break down easily and can therefore exist in both the environment and in the human body long after their initial use. 

Hexafluoropropylene oxide dimer acid (HFPO–DA), a replacement chemical that has been in use at the manufacturing site since 2013, was also found in local waters. The highest levels (>100 ng/L) of HFPO-DA were found in surface water up to 3.8 miles north of the plant. The study, Evidence of Air Dispersion: HFPO–DA and PFOA in Ohio and West Virginia Surface Water and Soil near a Fluoropolymer Production Facility, indicated that PFOA and HFPO-DA had traveled to surface water and soil via downwind, atmospheric transport, to multiple locations, some as far as 30 miles away from the plant. Currently, the potential toxicity of HFPO-DA is unknown as little toxicological data on the compound exists.

Weavers said the study indicated that the wind-blown emissions are being carried outside current surveillance zones. "The study’s data show that the atmospheric transport of PFAS from the plant is more widespread than previously thought," she said.

Weavers, May and their colleagues recommend expanded, widespread monitoring of surface and drinking water to identify the methods and locations of PFAS exposure. "Whereas previous studies indicated PFOA contamination mainly west and southwest of the facilty, we wanted to assess ongoing impacts from the plant on a broader scale, including areas north and northeast of the facility," she added.

The study raised the question of whether all potentially exposed households and public water utilities have had their drinking water evaluated. To answer this question, the group contends that monitoring efforts will need to be conducted at greater distances from the plant until data indicate the outer boundary of the contamination in groundwater from air release has been determined.

In the future, the team plans additional research that includes testing for the presence of PFAS in the air of communities surrounding the manufacturing plant. “While Anjelica’s modeling efforts give us some indication of where we think atmospheric transport will take the PFAS, we lack data on which PFAS and how much of each is actually in the air," Professor May stated. "This is something that we have been working on with CEGE MS student Miranda McGrothers through a project funded by the Ohio Water Resources Center.”  

- by Kevin Satterfield, CEGE Communications