PFAS in Rivers and Lakes: Sources and Actionable Tips to Reduce Contamination

Rivers, lakes, and groundwater are the three most common sources of water in the U.S. Groundwater, in general, is considered cleaner and safer than surface water. The water of rivers and lakes, however, is polluted.

While there are many contaminants found in the water of lakes and rivers, none of them is as concerning as PFAS. These chemicals– the critical ingredient in a plethora of consumer products– are ubiquitous. That means they are present everywhere.

Over 80% of waterways in the U.S. are contaminated with PFAS at levels exceeding federal and state limits. These toxic chemicals harm marine life in a number of ways. They cause liver damage in fish, affect the reproductive health of sea birds, and decrease immune function within marine organisms.

However, they are also detrimental to human health. Eating a freshwater fish caught in a lake or river in the United States is equivalent to drinking a month’s worth of water polluted with PFAS. That’s alarming.

In this guide, we’ll discuss the sources of these toxic chemicals in rivers and lakes, as well as share some tips to help you reduce PFAS pollution.

PFAS: What are They?

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are a class of man-made chemicals that have been widely used in industrial and consumer products for decades. Their ability to withstand grease, heat, oil, and water has contributed to their popularity.

The molecules of PFAS are characterized by a chain of linked carbon and fluorine items. The carbon-fluorine bonds are among the strongest, which is why these chemicals don’t degrade easily. They can take hundreds or even thousands of years to disintegrate. Thus, they have earned the nickname “forever chemicals.”

Their ubiquitousness is a concern, but more worrying is that these chemicals harm human health. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), exposure to PFAS can increase cholesterol levels, cause changes in liver enzymes, and lower antibody response to some vaccines.

Elevated levels of perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)– a type of PFAS– are associated with a higher risk of testicular cancer. Researchers also link these chemicals to kidney, breast, ovarian, endometrial, prostate, and thyroid cancers.

Sources of PFAS in Rivers and Lakes

PFAS can enter rivers and lakes in several ways. Some common sources of PFAS pollution include:

1. Industrial Discharges

Industrial activities play a significant role in introducing PFAS into lakes and rivers. Many industries, such as electronics, textiles, and chemicals, use PFAS in their products to make them resistant to water and oil. As a result, the wastewater from these industries contains PFAS. This, when discharged into water bodies, pollutes them with PFAS.

2. Firefighting Foam

Firefighting foam– in particular, aqueous film-forming foam– is another major source of PFAS contamination in rivers and lakes. Aqueous film-forming foam (AFFF) is used to extinguish flammable liquid fires in industrial facilities, military bases, chemical manufacturing plants, and airports.

During firefighting operations or training, a significant amount of PFAS-containing AFFF is released into the environment. Runoff from firefighting or training sites can carry these chemicals into nearby water bodies. There, they accumulate and persist for a long time.

As many as 600 former or active military installations and adjacent communities are or may be contaminated with forever chemicals. Wurtsmith Air Force Base is just one of the hundreds of U.S. military sites whose drinking water is contaminated with PFAS.

Researchers of a study published last year discovered a link between military personnel’s testicular cancer and forever chemicals present in AFFF.

Hundreds of AFFF foam cancer lawsuits have been filed against companies manufacturing these foams. One lawsuit was filed by Gary Flook, who served at an Air Force base in Indiana as well as in Illinois as a firefighter for 37 years. He developed testicular cancer at the age of 45 due to exposure to AFFF.

TorHoerman Law informs that companies that supplied AFFF to airports, military bases, fire departments, and others have been sued by those affected by PFAS-containing foam. Some of them include ChemDesign Inc., Chemguard Inc., DuPont, and 3M.

3. Domestic Wastewater

It might come as a surprise to you, but domestic wastewater is also one of the sources of PFAS contamination in rivers and lakes.

Personal care items, waterproof clothing or carpets, and non-stick cookware, to name a few, are products that contain PFAS. When these items are used and washed, forever chemicals enter the domestic wastewater stream.

Wastewater treatment plants are designed to remove contaminants. Yet PFAS ends up in receiving waters because traditional methods are often ineffective.

3 Ways You Can Help Reduce PFAS Pollution in Rivers and Lakes

You can do several things to minimize PFAS pollution in rivers and lakes. Here, we’ve discussed a few:

1. Choose PFAS-Free Products

One of the best ways to limit PFAS pollution in water bodies is to choose products free from PFAS. Opt for cast iron or stainless steel cookware instead of non-stick cookware. Avoid single-use disposable food packaging. Rather, go for fiber or paper food packaging that is formulated without PFAS.

As far as carpets, cleaners, and other products are concerned, read labels carefully to ensure they are made of natural materials or are PFAS-free. By purchasing safer alternatives, you can reduce the demand for PFAS-containing products, thereby decreasing their production.

2. Properly Dispose of Household Items

Some commonly used items such as toilet paper, tampons, wall paints, and dishwasher and laundry detergent must be disposed of properly. Never should you flush them down. Instead, dispose of them at waste management facilities. When you dispose of PFAS-containing items responsibly, you’re preventing them from entering the water bodies.

3. Advocate for Clean Water Policies

Another excellent way to reduce PFAS pollution in water bodies is to get involved in local advocacy groups that focus on protecting water quality.

Participate in advocacy campaigns led by non-profit groups or environmental organizations. Encourage elected officials to allocate resources for research into PFAS remediation technologies. Also, support the adoption of sustainable water management techniques.

To sum things up, addressing PFAS pollution in rivers and lakes has become important due to the chemical’s impact on human health and marine life.

You can do your bit to reduce PFAS pollution in water bodies by choosing safer alternatives, disposing of each product properly, and advocating for clean water policies. These efforts as an individual might feel like a drop in the bucket but they will make a world of difference in the long run.

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