BioCycle July 2018
Not all rules are golden. Nor are all fair or easy to obey or make the world a better place. Making a good solid rule that provides a means to an end is a real challenge. A challenge that can only be met when the people in charge of enforcing the rule are given sufficient tools and time. And only if the rule is directed to the appropriate party/ parties.
Let me explain. We can start with the case of PFOS and PFOA, covered in detail in this issue in an article by Ned Beecher and myself. PFOS and PFOA used to be common household chemicals that were also found on industrial sites. These — and similar poly- and perfluorinated compounds (PFAS) — were very useful. They kept the red wine from ruining your carpet, the cheese on the pizza from sticking to the box, the eggs from sticking to the frying pan, and your body dry under your jacket in the driving rain. And they helped put out fire when there wasn’t rain or water to be found.
It turns out that PFOS and PFOA may be associated with low birth weight, certain types of cancers and other illnesses in cases of high levels of exposure. They are one of the many types of compounds that were so useful and so used that they are found everywhere — from your blood to your breast milk and in fish and other animals across the world including the Arctic. These specific compounds are part of a general class of compounds that are characterized by carbon bonded to fluorine. PFOS and PFOA are the biggest, and based on current scientific consensus, the baddest.
The recognition that these compounds were potentially harmful led to an agreement between the U.S. government and industry to gradually phase them out. This agreement went into effect in 2003 and use of both compounds was eliminated by 2014. The phaseout and advisory levels for concentrations of these compounds in drinking water are the main things that the government has done on a national level. According to an article in Politico in May, a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) review goes into depth on health hazards associated with these compounds. To date, however, the study has not been published. U.S. EPA and the Department of Defense (DoD) have been talking with CDC about publication of the study and differences in risk assessments used by EPA and CDC that result in different advisory levels for PFOS and PFOA in drinking water. It will be confusing if these federal agencies are making significantly different recommendations. And it turns out that many of the hotspots or areas of high concentration that will need extensive remediation are on or near DoD bases, as firefighting foams were used extensively in military exercises.
States Stepping In
In the absence of more clarity on a federal level, several states are attempting to set their own limits. And this is where things get sticky. As with so many current compounds of concern, the good has to be weighed with the bad. One has to consider what a regulation can accomplish and what harm will result as an unintended consequence of that regulation. How useful is the compound and are there available substitutes? For example, banning microplastic beads in cosmetics has not harmed the world in any way shape or form. Restricting use of fire-suppressing chemicals (e.g. PFOS and/or PFOA), however, is a different story.
For each compound in question the most critical tool is information. What are the sources of the compound in question, where are there elevated concentrations, and how do these elevated concentrations hurt people? Sources, hot spots, and mode of action (i.e., how the compound causes harm). What are the most significant sources of PFOS and PFOA? In this case the hottest spots and sources are points of manufacture and points of high end use. In fact, one point of manufacture, the 3M company, which makes Scotchgard, has paid over $1.5 billion to settle claims of water contamination and personal injury. It also had to come up with a new formulation of one of its signature products. It should be noted here that the 3M plant in Decatur, Alabama was the source of PFOS and PFOA that contaminated that community’s biosolids back in the 2000s.
Other hot spots would include manufacturers that use/used high quantities of these compounds in their products, and finally, sites where there was very high end use of products that contained these compounds. DoD sites are examples — 24 drinking water systems that they operate have tested above the EPA public health advisory level of 70 ppt for PFOS and PFOA. DoD has identified another 564 community water systems that were likely impacted by DoD activities and are above the same screening level. Firefighting foams have been linked to high groundwater concentrations of these compounds. Training sites for firefighters and defense facilities are two likely types of places to target for high rates of contamination that may require remedial actions or other interventions.
By starting with the manufacturer, you are regulating at the source. These are the people with the most knowledge of the compound in question and the most skill to come up with alternative products. From here, go to high concentration sites of contamination like the DoD sites; cleaning these will give you the biggest bang for the buck. They will also target the areas of greatest potential harm and impact to the most at-risk populations. This is a much more effective and achievable approach than house-to-house searches for stain resistant carpet and nonstick fry pans. If you outlaw the chemical, you solve the problem — not right away but over time.
We’ve covered sources, now consider modes of action. The biggest concern with these specific compounds is drinking water contamination. (There is a question of whether you really believe this, given that the concentration of these compounds in household dust is much greater than in many other matrices.) With water as the pathway of concern, the best way to decrease concentrations in water is to go after point sources. For municipalities, that means going after manufacturers in their water districts and forcing them to control discharges into municipal systems. If you can’t ban the compound, then you can restrict its most direct route into the environment. That was the approach used to reduce metals in biosolids and it was very effective. The next step is to identify legacy sites or high use sites with a potential for groundwater contamination. Here options are being investigated to limit movement to groundwater.
Baby And The Bathwater
These are easy and obvious steps to limit concentrations of chemicals such as PFOS and PFOA in the environment. In fact, phasing out use of these two chemicals has already resulted in lower concentrations in environmental samples, including human blood. What you don’t want to do is throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak. For those of us who work with organics including municipal biosolids and composts, we are increasingly seeing regulatory concerns about use of these materials because of the presence of PFOA and PFOS (typically in low ppb concentrations) in these soil amendments.
What happens when you restrict concentrations of compounds like PFOA and PFOS in biosolids and composts? For most biosolids and compost programs, sources of these compounds are peoples’ homes rather than manufacturers. It is very hard to turn off the spigots and stop waste collection. In other words, source control from very widespread and low concentration sources is impossible to do. Without the ability to stop contamination at the source, you are then forced to stop or severely restrict use of the recycled organics product.
What does that get you? If you are in charge of producing and distributing these products, it may get you out of the business altogether, and back to the landfill for the organics. It gets you increased costs to farmers, municipalities, gardeners, and any and all who depend on these materials for their soils. It also gets you worse soils, worse carbon emissions, and lower crop yields. Yet, at the same time, it is all but certain that it won’t significantly impact human exposure to PFOS and PFOA. The low concentration of these compounds in the biosolids and composts, the relatively small amounts of these recycled organics, and their relatively broad distribution suggest that they are insignificant routes by which these contaminants reach humans and the environment.
More Harm Than Good
To ban or restrict biosolids and composts because they contain traces of PFOS and PFOA creates many more problems than it solves. To me it falls into the category of poorly thought out rules. Such rules made in the fervent hope of making a problem go away, without the appropriate tools or targets, are destined to do more harm than good. So what can be done? As stated earlier, directed source control in the form of carpet manufacturers or pizza box makers will bring easier and more significant reductions than a direct ban. Secondly, it is possible to work within the existing regulatory framework to reduce any potential for exposure.
Here is an example of what I mean: While biosolids have low ppb concentrations of these compounds, they have percent concentrations (typically 40,000 to 60,000 ppm) of nitrogen. Biosolids are typically applied to meet the nitrogen demands of a crop. The potential for nitrogen contamination of groundwater has been a recognized concern since long before Stainmaster carpets were invented. By making sure amendments are used as regulated, following agronomic rates, not only will beneficial use be able to continue, groundwater will be protected from both excess N and PFOS and PFOA.
Working to draft rules that are enforceable and will have the desired impact is not easy. It may require working with those being regulated to figure out realistic approaches and solutions, which can be harder than simply setting some calculated limits that may or may not be enforceable. But thoughtful regulation can also lead to a multitude of benefits, rules that are complied with and that shine like gold.
Sally Brown is a Research Associate Professor at the University of Washington in Seattle and a member of BioCycle’s Editorial Board.