On Nov. 1, the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management released a draft report detailing the presence of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances within the state. The report — mandated by the PFAS in Drinking Water, Groundwater and Surface Waters Act — is open for public comment until Dec. 1. RIDEM will finalize a comprehensive plan for further PFAS investigation by Jan 1.
PFAS — also known as “forever chemicals” because they do not easily break down in the environment — are a class of various artificial compounds known for their “water solubility, water and oil repellency, chemical stability and thermal stability,” according to Nicholas Noons, environmental engineer IV for RIDEM’s Office of Land Revitalization and Sustainable Materials Management.
These properties have made PFAS incredibly desirable in various consumer goods and industrial processes, including “clothing, textiles, food packaging, non-stick cookware, cosmetics, carpeting, upholstery and firefighting foam,” Noons wrote in an email to The Herald.
But recent research has pointed to connections between PFAS and a variety of adverse health effects. According to Noons, PFAS has been linked to negative effects on reproduction and development. They can also contribute to immunosuppression and cancer.
Noons noted that the same properties that make PFAS desirable in consumer products contribute to its harmful health and environmental effects.
“PFAS are highly mobile in the environment and do not degrade via any natural biological, chemical or physical processes,” he wrote. “PFAS also have the potential to bioaccumulate in humans and animals and have a long half-life in our bodies.”
According to Noons, public and government attention surrounding these chemicals increased following the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water Health Advisory published in 2016. The advisory highlighted the negative health and environmental impacts of two forever chemicals — perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid.
State Representative June Speakman (D-Bristol, Warren) sponsored the PFAS in Drinking Water, Groundwater and Surface Waters Act, which focuses specifically on the presence of PFAS in the state’s water sources.
“I first became aware of PFAS when I was at a hearing of the House Environment Committee and it came up in our conversation about water quality,” she said.
While drafting the legislation, Speakman consulted various organizations such as Clean Water Action Rhode Island, a local organization that advocates for health and environmental protections on water resources in Rhode Island. She also noted collaboration with State Representative Terri-Denise Cortvriend (D-Portsmouth, Middletown), who sponsored the PFAS in Food Packaging Act banning the use of PFAS in certain consumer food packaging.
“It’s a multipronged and growing effort to try and figure out where this stuff is, how dangerous it is and what to do about it,” she said.
RIDEM’s investigation hopes to help answer uncertainties about removing the forever chemicals from the environment. According to Noons, the act has allowed RIDEM to “develop and promulgate criteria for PFAS in other environmental media, namely soil, to further protect human health and the environment.”
Noons also noted the draft report’s advancements in identifying sites with high PFAS concentrations.
“The major sources of PFAS in Rhode Island include former Department of Defense sites, Superfund sites, fire stations and fire training areas, textile finishing operations and landfills,” he wrote. “DEM has developed methodologies to investigate and prioritize sites based on the risk they pose to human health and the environment.”
“DEM has identified data gaps where additional source investigations are required and will continue to apply these tested methodologies,” he added.
Noons explained that the various projects and findings contained in the report come from collaborative efforts with the University, as well as the Rhode Island Department of Health, the EPA and the University of Rhode Island.
“The DEM has done a very thorough job of chronicling a wide number of sites,” said Rainer Lohmann, professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island and director of the URI Superfund Research Center, which focuses on sources, transport, exposure and effects of PFAS.
“It’s frustrating that we’ve been able to carelessly use these products and now realize we’ve contaminated a wide swath of our environment.”
But in some ways, Rhode Island is lucky compared to many other states, Lohmann said. “We don’t have major industrial users of PFAS that would have contaminated larger regions.”
According to Professor of Engineering Kurt Pennell, the industry is shifting towards short-chain PFAS chemicals, which are thought to have “lower bioaccumulation potential” — meaning that the chemicals are less likely to proliferate in the environment.
“Many of the longer-chain … compounds have been removed from the marketplace in the United States because the manufacturers are under pressure to remove them,” he said. Manufacturers increasingly opt for “shorter chain-linked compounds, because the beneficial properties of these types of compounds are still there.”
“There’s not much information on their toxicity,” he said. “There also hasn’t been much evidence of their ability to break down.”
Despite these uncertainties, Speakman said that RIDEM’s investigations provide substantial advancements in PFAS research and remediation. “The more you get to know about PFAS, the scarier it gets,” she said. “I am amazed at the depth of their research.”
Lohmann noted the importance of PFAS regulations for the sake of consumers. “We all have PFAS in our blood, so we’re all exposed — and mostly unwillingly, because I don’t think we ever signed an agreement saying, ‘Yeah, I want to have some PFOA and PFAS in my blood,’” he said.
The R.I. government should ensure “that everybody who lives in the state is not exposed to levels that are of concern,” Lohmann added. “As a consumer, I would just be frustrated that I’ve never had the choice to opt-out.”
Tom Li is a senior staff writer covering environment and crime & justice. He is from Pleasanton, California, and is concentrating in Economics, International & Public Affairs and French & Francophone Studies. He is an avid RIPTA enthusiast and enjoys taking (and criticizing) personality tests in his free time.