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Newly discovered fluorinated chemicals more difficult to filter from water

May 30, 2017

BERKELEY, CA (May 30, 2017):

A peer-reviewed study released today documents that newly discovered highly fluorinated chemicals are likely to be more difficult to remove from drinking water by activated carbon filtration systems. The study, Sorption of Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances (PFASs) relevant to Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF)-impacted Groundwater by Biochars and Activated Carbon, was published in a special virtual issue of Environmental Science and Technology focusing on highly fluorinated chemicals.

In 2016, the drinking water of more than 6 million Americans was found to be contaminated with two highly fluorinated chemicals called PFOA and PFOS. A major source of the contamination is firefighting foam used at military bases and airports. In response to the contamination, some communities installed activated carbon filters–at high cost–designed to remove these two chemicals from drinking water.

In this study, researchers found that numerous related highly fluorinated chemicals are likely to pass through filtration systems designed to remove PFOA and PFOS. “The newly characterized contaminants are likely to be found in water systems around the country impacted by firefighting foam”, according to lead author Chris Higgins of the Colorado School of Mines.

PFOA and PFOS are linked to a variety of adverse health effects in humans. Health effects data is lacking for most other chemicals in this class.

Compounds like PFOA and PFOS, known as “long-chains,” were recently phased out in the U.S. due to health concerns. These harmful chemicals have been replaced by similar “short-chain” PFASs that share many characteristics of the long-chains, but are less well studied. The chemical industry states that short-chain PFASs are not expected to harm human health or the environment. The majority of the newly-discovered compounds studied in this research are short-chains.

“This important new study provides additional evidence that the switch from long-chain to short-chain highly fluorinated chemicals is a case of regrettable substitution” according to Tom Bruton, PhD, of the Green Science Policy Institute. This entire class of chemicals is highly persistent and potentially toxic. As discussed in the Madrid Statement, a consensus document signed by more than 200 scientists, highly fluorinated chemicals should only be used with proper safeguards, when they are essential.

For more information, an embargoed press release, or to speak with the authors, contact:

  • Chris Higgins, Ph.D., Colorado School of Mines, (720) 984-2116, [email protected]
  • Tom Bruton, MSE, UC Berkeley & GSP, (773) 628-4452, [email protected]
  • Arlene Blum, Ph.D., UC Berkeley & GSP, (510) 919-6363, [email protected]
  • Green Science Policy Institute (GSP) (510) 898-1739 or (510) 898-1704.