Article By: Maria Hernandez, Pacific Daily News
HAGATNA, Guam — A toxicologist w/the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said the chemical recently found in Guam water wells is present in small amounts in every person’s blood system.
“The thing about perfluoroalkyl compounds is they’re out there & they’ve been out there a long time. They’re in Teflon, anti-stain stuff for clothes, Scotchguard…” said Bruce Macler, water toxicologist for U.S. EPA’s Region 9, which oversees Guam. “We all have a certain amount in our blood,” he said.
U.S. EPA health advisories for the chemical are based on levels of the chemical called perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, found in factory workers who handle the compound in high levels on a daily basis.
“We take that information from those exposed in the business & we try to make a connection between what that level would be to a baby,” Macler said.
Health advisories incorporate a safety margin, or buffering zone around it, calculated to offer a margin of protection against unfavorable health effects to sensitive populations, including fetuses during pregnancy & breast-fed infants, according to a U.S. EPA fact sheet on the chemical.
PFOS is a perfluoroalkyl, which is a class of man-made chemicals that don’t occur naturally in the environment. Recent studies have shown the contaminant to be widespread in the environment globally, said Gary Denton, environmental toxicologist w/the Water Environmental Research Institute of the Western Pacific. It’s prevalent in domestic products all around the world, he said.
“You roll around in it all day in the clothes you wear & the carpets you walk on,” he said. “It’s in the cookware that you use. It’s everywhere & it has been for 50 odd years or longer.”
The chemical repels oil, water & grease. It’s used to make items waterproof & to extinguish fires that involve flammable liquids. It also is used as a coating additive to repel stains & make products fire-resistant.
3 water wells, which provide residents w/drinking water, tested above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level for the chemical. An EPA health advisory is required for levels above 70 parts per trillion. 3 of the 5 wells tested exceeded that mark, according to U.S. EPA’s San Francisco Region 9 Drinking Water Management Section. The wells were shut off on Aug. 10, said former Guam EPA administrator Eric Palacios, special assistant to the governor for education & environment & natural resources.
According to U.S. EPA, the chemical, when present in high levels, has been linked to developmental defects in fetuses & breast-fed infants. Other health problems linked to PFOS exposure include cancer, liver & thyroid disease & problems w/the immune system. While Palacios has agreed w/U.S. EPA that the chemical is toxic in the levels it was detected, Guam Waterworks Authority & scientists w/University of Guam’s water research laboratory contend it is not harmful.
“Contrary to popular belief, it’s not particularly toxic. If it were, we’d all probably be dead bc there is so much of it out there & we ingest so much of it every day,” Denton said. “If it did have a high toxicity, we certainly would have known about it by now bc it’s been out there for so long,” Denton added.
As for the 70 parts per trillion health advisory, Denton said some advisories imposed upon by a number of states throughout the U.S. have ranged from 40 parts per trillion to 2,000.
“So you’re worrying about (410 parts per trillion) when standards in some states… are already up around 1,000 or 2,000,” he said. “So it’s a very low concentration.”
On average, about 1,000 nanograms of PFOS were found per deciliter of blood in factory workers who handle the chemical in high amounts, said Macler. The amount found in the average person’s blood is about 1 to 2 nanograms per deciliter — about 1,000 times lower than that of a person who is highly exposed, he said.
“Most people have some of this chemical in their blood. It’s pretty much in everyone’s blood,” he said. “Most people don’t have much though. Most people don’t have elevated amounts.”
The chemical in high levels could cause changes in lipid metabolism, which can affect how the body processes fat, Macler said. Cholesterol is a fat. He noted that some changes in blood cholesterol might be worth talking to a physician about as a precautionary measure. Typically, people would have to be exposed to 100 times the advisory level before they are impacted, Macler said.
“In the realm of risk, this is what we’re saying: the higher the level that you’re exposed to, the more chance something bad can happen,” he said.
W/410 parts per trillion being above the health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, there still is a health risk, he said.
“Is that risk a lot? I don’t know,” Macler said.
While the source of the chemical remains unclear, the most plausible explanation is that it seeped into the wells through leaks in wastewater pipes.
“Wastewater is a known medium for having high concentrations of PFOS & other fluorinated hydrocarbons,” he said.
This is bc people are surrounded by PFOS in their homes — in carpets, clothes, food packaging & more — & the chemical enters the wastewater streams when people shower. It’s possible the wastewater leaks out through faulty or damaged pipes near affected wells, he said.
A previous theory stated the chemical might have come from foam used to put out a fiery Korean Air crash in Guam in 1997. The theory was debunked bc the incident commander for the crash said the firefighting foam containing PFOS wasn’t used to put out the fire, according to GWA.