PROTECT’s Phil Brown and STEEP‘s/Silent Spring Institute’s Laurel Schaider collaborated with other authors to write the recent publication “PFAS Drinking Water Guideline Levels: The Role of Scientific Uncertainty, Risk Assessment Decisions, and Social Factors,” in the Journal Of Exposure Science And Environmental Epidemiology. This article has been selected to receive the 2020 ISES (International Society of Exposure Science) Award for Best Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology (JESEE) Paper for the year 2019. The award will be presented in the virtual awards session at this year’s ISES annual meeting in September 2020. JESEE is the official journal of the International Society of Exposure Science. This paper is a result of the long-standing collaboration between Northeastern’s Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) and Silent Spring Institute, which PROTECT collaborates with to manage the DERBI Report Back App.

The paper shows that in response to the growing problem of drinking water contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), many states are establishing their own guideline levels for two types of PFAS—PFOA and PFOS—that differ from federal guidelines. The findings highlight the need for enforceable federal standards and more health protective limits on these contaminants in drinking water to safeguard the health of millions of people whose water supplies have been contaminated.

PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate) are widely-used chemicals found in a range of products such as non-stick coatings, stain repellents, and firefighting foam which have been used since the 1950s. Although these substances were banned from manufacturing products when it became clear they were linked to a variety of diseases, both contaminants are still very persistent in the environment and the human body today. They are also extremely mobile in the environment and have contaminated the drinking water supplies serving millions of Americans.

The research team identified state agencies that have guidelines regarding the levels of PFOA and PFOS chemicals that are allowed in drinking water without causing adverse health effects, and the remedial action to be taken if these contaminants are found in water sources. These guidelines were compared with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) health advisories for the same chemicals. The research team also identified multiple scientific factors that influenced the guideline levels, including the choice of toxicological endpoints and assumptions about drinking water consumption. “Assessments by multiple states and academic scientists suggest that EPA’s health advisory for drinking water is not sufficiently protective,” explains lead author Cordner. In the absence of federal drinking-water standards for PFOA and PFOS, despite widespread drinking water contamination, ubiquitous population-level exposure, and toxicological and epidemiological evidence linking it to various diseases, public water entities are not required by law to routinely test whether contaminant levels in water exceed EPA’s health advisory and state agencies are not empowered to enforce cleanup. The lack of federal standards may create or exacerbate public health disparities because not all states have the resources to develop their own guideline levels or ensure cleanup of contaminated supplies.

Further details can be found in the January 8, 2019 press release from Silent Spring Institute.

Reference: Alissa Cordner, Vanessa Y. De La Rosa, Laurel A. Schaider, Ruthann A. Rudel, Lauren Richter, and Phil Brown. 2019. “Guideline Levels for PFOA and PFOS in Drinking Water: The Role of Scientific Uncertainty, Risk Assessment Decisions, and Social Factors.” Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology 29:157–171.