Karla Buechler’s laboratory in Sacramento, Calif., tests baby bottles, car upholstery, and food wrappers for fluorochemicals that have contaminated drinking water supplies across the U.S.
“The chemicals are ubiquitous,” Buechler, corporate technical director at TestAmerica, told Bloomberg Environment. “They’re in all of us and in everything.”
Those substances are part of a family of hundreds of fluorochemicals called poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS.
The Environmental Protection Agency has protocols on how to test some of the chemicals in drinking water. But commercial labs, such as Buechler’s, aren’t waiting for the EPA to tell them how to test more compounds in the PFAS family. Instead, they have charged ahead with their own techniques for testing them in consumer products and the environment.
The EPA’s prescribed test method only covers 14 PFAS compounds out of hundreds and only addresses drinking water samples. Labs are modifying the EPA method by analyzing nearly 30 compounds and testing different media, including soil and plastics.
While clients question whether the labs’ methods are reliable, the laboratories are waiting for the EPA to publish an accepted method.
“There’s no guarantee that they’ll come out with one, but the market and the data consumers need one,” Buechler said.
In 2012, the EPA asked large public water suppliers and some smaller facilities to start testing for six chemicals in the PFAS family, including perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
That kicked off the growing demand for PFAS testing.
“A year ago, it was like months to get a sample analyzed, and there were a few labs that could do it,” said Jeff Holden, senior engineer at GEI Consultants. “Now, there are more labs that are advertising it.”
TestAmerica’s PFAS samples come from local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as manufacturers who want to know whether their completed product or their raw materials contain the chemicals.
The company’s Sacramento lab received 300-400 samples for PFAS testing on a monthly basis in 2016. Now, it gets about 2,000, according to Buechler. “In some months we’ve done 3,000 per month; that’s just at the Sacramento lab,” she said.
(Click this link to look at an interactive map that shows the civilian and military water utilities that were contaminated with PFOA or PFOS.)
Two EPA headquarters offices and its Office of Analytical Services and Quality Assurance have formed a workgroup to determine the best assessment methods for chemicals in the PFAS family.
The workgroup is talking to state representatives and commercial laboratories as it forms a draft groundwater sampling guidance document. The agency expects to release the groundwater guidance later in 2018, according to EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox.
To some extent, the larger labs agree on the best methods for testing PFAS in samples outside of drinking water.
“There’s only one answer, and we all get it,” Buechler said. “We’re all in this waiting mode, waiting for EPA to publish.”
A ‘Vacuum’ For Standards
Janice Willey, a senior chemist for the U.S. Navy, said the Department of Defense also wants to test other types of water sources for PFAS, but there are no EPA-approved sampling or analysis procedures.
“There is a vacuum right now,” Willey said at an October meeting of the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials in Arlington, Va.
EPA Method 537 can test certain types of PFAS compounds in drinking water. Labs are modifying the protocol by adding more PFAS compounds and testing other types of samples such as groundwater, surface water, and organic tissue.
The EPA developed the method to ensure a standard way of measuring PFAS in drinking water across the country. The results of those tests could then indicate to the agency whether it needs to regulate PFAS.
According to the National Ground Water Association, most labs have their own modified versions of Method 537 based on their expertise and recent improvements in testing equipment.
They are looking at slightly fewer than 30 types of PFAS under a modified method, Buechler said. “Most labs have added analytes, so that’s a similar and major modification,” she said. Analytes are the substances being measured in a given lab test.
Testing laboratories may also modify their methods based on the equipment they have, but in general, the science they rely on is the same, she said.
PFAS chemicals have been used in stain-resistant upholstery, waterproof apparel, pizza boxes, hamburger wrappers, and popcorn bags. The chemicals don’t degrade easily and may cause high cholesterol, thyroid problems, and testicular and kidney cancers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The extent of their health effects is still unclear, but the military and local governments are providing bottled water in some locations to give residents an alternative to PFAS-contaminated water.
About 60 percent of the requests Buechler’s lab receives for PFAS testing are for water samples, she said, but the other requests run the gamut.
“That 40 percent can be anything from baby bottles to sediment and every tissue and plant matrix in between,” she said.
PFAS tests can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the type of sample, number of samples, and how many compounds are being analyzed.
The Department of Defense is also pushing for more labs to be accredited as it deals with PFAS contamination on its own properties.
The department’s Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program employs third parties to assess labs’ practices before they accept PFAS samples from military properties.
Willey said in October that the department would like to have more of them accredited to test for PFAS as quickly as possible. At the time, 11 labs were accredited to test for PFAS in drinking water using the standard EPA method. Six were accredited to test for PFAS in other types of samples.
Though more labs are seeking it, the number of labs with Defense accreditation has not changed since then, according to the program’s data.
One of the major sources of PFAS is aqueous film-forming foam, which was widely used to put out fires on aircraft and ships. Once the foam is sprayed onto a training ground, airfield, or accident site, it has the potential to seep into soil and groundwater.
Kerry Robert Tull, senior project manager at Wood PLC, a company doing business as Amec Foster Wheeler, found 125 potential sites where the foam may have been released.
The military could be responsible for as much as $2 billion in PFAS cleanup costs, the Defense Department estimates.
“We’re spending a whole lot of money on PFAS at our facilities,” Willey said.
—With assistance from Pat Rizzuto and David Schultz.
This is the third part of a Bloomberg Environment series looking at the impact of fluorinated chemical contamination on communities and businesses.