Report Finds PFAS Water Contamination is Widespread, and AFFF Impact Has Been Underestimated

Researchers called for more surface and groundwater sampling at airports, military bases, and other places that used AFFF firefighting foam, which contain high levels of PFAS.

Australian researchers warn that per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are being found in drinking water sources around the world, even in areas that are nowhere near a potential source of contamination, highlighting the wide-ranging impact of the toxic chemicals in AFFF firefighting foam.

PFAS include a group of over 15,000 man-made substances that have been used for decades to resist grease, oil and water. While they are found in a number of products, most issues with PFAS water contamination have been found to stem from aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) products, which have been used for decades by the U.S. military and local fire departments to combat fuel based fires.

In the findings of a new report published in the medical journal Nature Geoscience, researchers indicate that the levels of PFAS water contamination worldwide is likely underestimated, and the impact of AFFF has not been fully appreciated, since the most frequent sources of PFAS contamination tend to be military bases, airports and other places where run off from the firefighting foam was released directly into the environment.

Due a failure to warn about the long-term side effects of the PFAS water contamination, 3M Company, DuPont and other manufacturers of fire safety equipment now face thousands of lawsuits brought by individuals who developed testicular cancer, kidney cancer, ulcerative colitis or other injuries. The companies also face AFFF cancer lawsuits brought by firefighters, who were directly exposed to large volumes of the chemicals during training or response exercises.

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Exposure to firefighting foam chemicals may result in an increased risk of cancer for firefighters, military and airport personnel.


To assess global PFAS water contamination, researchers from the University of New South Wales used data from 273 environmental studies conducted since 2004, including more than 12,000 surface samples and 33,900 groundwater samples. Since PFAS do not naturally occur in nature, the researchers also tried to trace the possible sources of contamination.

According to their findings, “PFAS are pervasive” in surface waters and groundwaters worldwide, particularly in Australia, China, Europe and North America.

The researchers used regulatory limits on PFAS, set by major industrial countries to determine whether PFAS water contamination levels were unsafe. However, they noted that oversampling might have occurred in areas where PFAS is already a concern, which may play into why locations like North America, Europe and others place so highly.

In the U.S., the highest chances of PFAS groundwater or surface water contamination were linked to known sources of AFFF, like military bases. However, the researchers noted they still found elevated levels of PFAS widely distributed in U.S. waters near other sources of possible PFAS production, like factories, and even when there was no known source nearby.

These types of findings were often echoed in other countries. However, the researchers noted that some areas are likely more contaminated than believed, particularly near AFFF-using airports and military bases, but have not yet been properly sampled. They also noted that with different countries having different PFAS limits, a level of concern in one country may not be a level of concern in another.

The researchers also warned that not all forms of PFAS have been sufficiently studied, or even identified, limiting the ability of health experts to predict the total public health threat of PFAS water contamination.

PFAS Water Contamination Likely Underestimated

A report released late last year found that elevated levels of PFAS water contamination affect at least 44 million Americans. The analysis, published by the Environmental Working Group, used data from tests conducted on water systems nationwide. The prominent environmental advocacy organization determined that at least 854 water systems across the U.S. suffer from PFAS contamination.

However, both the Environmental Working Group, and these Australian researchers, say their findings are likely underestimations.

“Here we show that a substantial fraction of sampled waters exceeds PFAS drinking water guidance values, with the extent of exceedance depending on the jurisdiction and PFAS source,” the researchers concluded. “Additionally, current monitoring practices probably underestimate PFAS in the environment given the limited suite of PFAS that are typically quantified but deemed of regulatory concern.”

The researchers called for more understanding of the range of PFAS in use, to accurately predict their environmental impact, and then for countries to develop mitigation efforts to reduce that impact.


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