Highly fluorinated chemicals called PFASs (also known as PFCs) are added to many consumer products to make them non-stick, waterproof, and stain-resistant. They are also used in firefighting foams and industrial processes. Their strong bonds make them very effective at repelling water and oil even at high temperatures, but these characteristics also make them persistent. They are ubiquitous in the environment – even in Arctic wildlife – and most Americans have PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) in their bodies due to their widespread use. Silent Spring Institute is studying PFASs because some have been linked to cancer, including breast tumors in animal studies, hormone disruption, reproductive problems, and other health effects.
Silent Spring Institute's studies of drinking water show that PFASs are common in drinking water on Cape Cod – in some cases at levels approaching and even exceeding health guidelines. Many wells where PFASs have been found also show signs of septic system impact, indicated by the presence of chemicals such as artificial sweeteners and elevated nitrate levels. PFASs are common in many household products, but how much actually gets washed down our drains or flushed down our toilets and ends up in wastewater? Are the levels of PFASs in drinking water likely to come from wastewater or other sources?
To answer these questions, our researchers have measured PFASs in wastewater from household septic systems on Cape Cod. These results provide new information on the range of PFAS levels in household wastewater that can ultimately end up in groundwater and allow us to assess the effectiveness of septic systems and sewage treatment plants in removing PFASs. We have also tested water samples from both public and private wells on the Cape to determine if PFASs and other contaminants are making their way into people's drinking water. These findings are important for developing strategies and informing policies aimed at reducing people's exposure to PFASs in drinking water, while protecting the environment now and for generations to come.
Funding for this study comes from Massachusetts Environmental Trust.