Tackling California's PFAS Problem
You may never have heard of PFAS, but they are a class of toxic chemicals that are everywhere. These manmade chemicals have traveled through the environment into the far reaches of the world, and they don’t break down and go away, which is why they are called “forever” chemicals.
Google PFAS in water and you’ll see stories about New York, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and multiple other states with contamination problems that imperil human health. Up until recently, California would rarely come up in search results, despite the fact that this state has the most PFAS chemical detections in drinking water sources in the nation. That’s why Clean Water Action has launched a campaign to educate the public and decision makers about PFAS and make sure we take action to address these toxic chemicals.
What Are PFAS?
The acronym PFAS stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a class of almost 5000 human-made chemicals that are made by combining fluorine and carbon in one of the strongest bonds on Earth. This makes them very useful in a wide variety of products. Many places in California will be impacted by manufacturing-related PFAS contamination because PFAS are used in electroplating. In terms of consumer products, PFAS are generally found in non-stick, water, stain and grease-resistant items.
Unfortunately PFAS persist in the environment and have been linked to serious health impacts. The use of older forms of PFAS, called PFOA and PFOS are being phased out in the US due to an increased awareness of their harmful effects, yet, the newer short-chain versions—or those with a smaller number of carbon fluorine bonds—are replacing them in consumer products.
Mixtures of these newer versions continue to be used in items like food packaging and cookware, clothing, stain resistant carpet and furniture, and some personal care products-all of these products increase the potential for exposure in people. Industrial releases and the use of PFAS-containing fire-fighting foams (used for oil fires) can contaminate drinking water supplies and water bodies such as San Francisco Bay.
Watch our PFAS Film to learn more
Do a Deep Dive
On February 4, 2022 Clean Water Action co-hosted an innovative conference on PFAS in San Francisco Bay Fish with the San Francisco Estuary Institute and the California Indian Environmental Alliance. The conference brought together 250 people representing at risk fishing communities, regulators, scientists, waste water professionals, and other interested stakeholders to discuss what we know about PFAS in the Bay (some of the highest levels in wildlife in the world!) and the human and environmental justice implications, as well to explore next steps.
To see the slides of the various presentations click on the titles below.
- Session 1 talk Blum: Reducing Harm from PFAS For Health & Environment (Dr. Arlene Blum, Executive Director Green Science Policy Institute and U.C. Berkeley Dept. of Cell and Molecular Biology).
- Session 1 talk Brooks: PFAS In African American Disadvantaged Communities (Dominique Brooks , Founder & Executive Director Healing Impacted Communities)
- Session 1 talk Ware: Relationships = Solutions: Collaborative Research on Fish & Contaminants (William Ware, Graduate Student, U.C. Santa Cruz Dept. of Coastal Science and Policy)
- Session 1 talk Kauffman: PFASs Measured in Biomonitoring California's Asian/Pacific Islander Community Exposures (ACE) Project (Duyen Kauffman, Health Program Specialist II, Biomonitoring California, California Dept. of Public Health)
- Session 2 talk Linck: Characterizing PFAS in California’s Drinking Water and Groundwater (Wendy Linck, Senior Engineering Geologist, State Water Resources Control Board, Division of Water Quality)
- Session 2 talk Fono and Mendez: Looking for Sources of PFAS in Bay Area Wastewater (Dr. Lorien Fono, Executive Director, Bay Area Clean Water Agencies and Miguel Mendez, Associate Environmental Scientist, San Francisco Estuary Institute)
- Session 2 talk Mumley: Regional Water Board Perspective on PFAS Sources and Management Approaches (Thomas Mumley, Interim Executive Director, San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board)
- Session 3 talk Davis: PFAS in San Francisco Bay Fish (Dr. Jay Davis, Program Director and Senior Scientist, San Francisco Estuary Institute)
- Session 3 talk Smith: OEHHA's Fish Advisory Program (Dr. Wesley Smith, Staff Toxicologist, Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment)
- Session 3 talk: PFAS and NJ Fish Consumption Advisories (Dr. Sandra Goodrow, Research Scientist, New Jersey Dept. of the Environment
Why Are They Harmful?
PFAS are bio-accumulative, meaning that they gradually build up in humans, as well as the environment over time. In fact, they can be found in 97% of human blood samples, according to a study published in 2017. At least one study also detected newer short-chain PFAS in human organs, suggesting that we may not be able to eliminate these chemicals from our bodies.
PFAS have been linked to several serious health issues, including:
• kidney and testicular cancer
• liver malfunction
• thyroid diseases
• delayed puberty
• early menopause in women
• reduced immune system responses in children
• birth defects in newborns
• elevated cholesterol for both producers and consumers of goods containing PFAS
According to the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, primary exposure routes are from drinking contaminated drinking water or eating fish caught in PFAS polluted water, eating food contaminated from packaging, ingesting dust, and using certain consumer products.
PFAS chemicals not only bioaccumulate in our bodies, they are impacting soil, water, and even wildlife as far away as the Arctic. While there are numerous ways PFAS get into the environment, industrial spills and the use of PFAS-containing products are major causes. For instance, PFAS-containing disposable food packaging or containers not only result in mountains of waste, they can leach PFAS into groundwater (from landfills) and contaminate compost. Other PFAS containing products have similar end-of-life issues. Consequently, removing PFAS from these products not only protects consumers but prevents environmental harm as well.
What Does California Need?
Given the number of PFAS in commercial use, the current scope of the problem in the state, and the variety of contamination sources, California needs a comprehensive strategy that 1) reduces the use of PFAS chemicals in products and industrial processes and 2) develops the technology to address the chemicals already in our environment. Fortunately, as an innovator state, we are in a unique position to take this on. That is why Clean Water Action has launched a PFAS campaign aimed at educating decision makers and the public about the impacts of these chemicals and calling for action on products, water monitoring and treatment, and the leaching of PFAS into our air, soil, or water.
What can you do?
The first thing you can do is to educate yourself about the issue. To learn about water pollution in the state, as well as the various products PFAS are commonly used in and what CWA is doing about them, please click on the sections below.
Next, check out our tips on reducing PFAS exposure for you and your family and read our blog post about how California can respond to the PFAS contamination crisis. Learn about our PFAS-related work in multiple areas, including food packaging and firefighting foam.
Finally, keep an eye out for action alerts on measures to reduce PFAS use and address water contamination. We need your voice to make things happen. Together we can protect public health and water from these forever chemicals.