What are PFAs?

via The National Wildlife Federation

PFAs, or polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl

What is that?

PFAs are a category of manmade carcinogenic chemicals. Invented and brought into widespread use during World War II, they are very effective in extinguishing fires, especially ones accelerated by jet fuel or petroleum products. The PFAs are mixed with water to create a spray foam that suffocates the fire quickly and doesn’t allow the fire to reignite. They are also used to coat fabrics for firefighters.

PFAs are considered ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down in the environment and they accumulate in wildlife, plants and humans.

I don’t work in an airport and I’m not a firefighter or in the military, so I’m fine. 

Not really. PFAs are used in many household items like nonstick cookware, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, windshield fluid and carpets.

They are also in the water — groundwater and drinking water. And over time, they accumulate in fish and livestock, meaning they are in the food chain. All of these sources cause them to accumulate in the human body.

Additionally, steps should be taken to make firefighting and military equipment safe for those using it.

Firefighter puts out car fire with PFAs-based foam

What does that mean?

Scientists are still investigating, testing and studying results, but here are some results:

  • It is estimated that 98% of Americans have some level of PFAs in their blood.
  • If a person were able to avoid exposure to any and all PFAs, it would take 3.5 years for half of the PFAs to be processed out of their system.
  • Studies show links to thyroid and liver problems, obesity, high cholesterol, low birth weight, and certain cancers.
  • Approximately 16 million Americans are drinking water that has been contaminated with PFAs. This includes private wells and public water systems.

CDC guidance on PFAsFDA guidance on PFAs

How do we trace PFAs?

Attention needs to be paid to threatened areas, particularly those near military installations or manufacturing plants. For example, the U.S. Air Force is testing water on 200 bases around the world, but as of last year had only completed a third of them.

All three U.S. Air Force bases in Georgia showed significant levels of PFAs contamination in the groundwater. Unfortunately, the military did not test water offsite, even if it was nearby. Local residents that use private wells are especially vulnerable to contamination.

The EPA drinking water advisory level is 70 parts per trillion PFAs. Groundwater samples from Moody Air Force Base tested 5,000 times that; Dobbins Air Reserve tested at 1,000 times; and Robins Air Force Base tested at more than 5,000 times the screening level.

Fire department sprays water on fire suppression foam. Photo by Greg L. Davis U.S. Air Force via dover.af.mi

So how do we get rid of it?

Some municipalities have already started to take steps.

Local governments and citizens must require action regarding PFAs.

  • Demand comprehensive PFAs drinking water and groundwater testing near high-likelihood sources. Use that data to determine the cause of the contamination and mitigate it.
  • Encourage drinking water testing of private wells in high-risk areas.
  • Require polluters to pay for remediation and damages, and not expect citizens to foot the bill, like in Summerville, Ga. or in Marinette, Wisc.
  • Test fish that may have been contaminated and issue advisory, if needed.
  • Encourage lawmakers to ban PFAs and/or source healthier alternatives.
  • Demand the EPA sets standards for ‘acceptable’ and enforces those standards.
  • Require ongoing testing and monitoring of pollutant sources.

Tannins and blackwater rivers

View of the blackwater on the Ogeechee River

The Ogeechee and Canoochee Rivers are considered ‘blackwater’ rivers. 

A blackwater river is typically a slow-moving waterway flowing through forests, swamps, or wetlands. As vegetation decays, tannins seep into the ground water or drain into lakes and streams, making a transparent, acidic water that is darkly stained, resembling black tea. Because of this blackwater rivers typically have a lower (more acidic) pH level.

Tannins are found commonly in the bark of trees, wood, leaves, buds, stems, fruits, seeds, and roots, and help to protect the individual plant species. For example, tannins stored in the bark of trees protect the tree from being infected by bacteria or fungi. Similar properties are extended to the waterways as it seeps into the river.

Additionally, less light penetration due to the darker water colors, means these waterways generally have less vegetation in the water. However, algae blooms can happen when there is a drought, which lowers the water level and allows sunlight to reach the bottom of the riverbed.

Swimming in a blackwater river

Tannins are also found in wine, tea, and berries, and are safe for human consumption. Historians note that early colonists and mariners would fill casks from blackwater rivers. In the days before treated water sources, it was a safer, healthier alternative. They didn’t understand that this water carried fewer microbes because of its chemical makeup, but they knew it worked. 

Blackwater streams also have high levels of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) due to the breakdown of the same plant material that cause the tannins. Because of this, blackwater rivers usually have high levels of (harmless) bacteria that feed on the DOC, causing a low oxygen levels.

The term tannin is from the Latin tannum and refers to the use of oak and other bark in tanning hides into leather. Scientifically, it refers to any large polyphenolic compound that can form strong complexes with various macromolecules. These compounds are most commonly found in organic, plant-based items.