Inside a nondescript building nestled in a business park in New Castle, Delaware, a small group of scientists were testing water samples recently, to see whether they had been contaminated by the very large class of toxic chemicals known as PFAS.
Chief scientist Chuck Powley walked into a noisy room — it sounded as if airplanes were flying overhead. He pointed to the equipment helping him and his colleagues achieve their goals: to identify PFAS and find a way to remediate and destroy them.
To the lay observer, the devices looked like contraptions connected to test tubes, bottles, and wiring. In actuality, they were tools for precision chemical analysis.
“This right here, this is what’s called liquid chromatography with mass spectrometry. And this … was commercialized around 2000. Before 2000, the tools to look at PFAS at very low levels did not exist,” said Powley, a former DuPont chemist. “So once this was commercialized, we could then look for part per trillion levels of the PFAS and that was in water and soil and blood. And that’s the reason why, even though PFAS have been around since the 1950s, we really didn’t know we had a problem until this was commercialized. So this was a game-changer, and that was around the time I got into the PFAS field as well.”
For decades, PFAS have contaminated groundwater, air, and soil in communities in this region and across the country, as well as waterways and the fish living in them.
These so-called forever chemicals — PFAS stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — are widely used in consumer products such as nonstick cookware, flame-retardant fabrics, and some food packaging. PFAS are also found in firefighting foam used at airports and current and decommissioned military bases, such as those in Bucks and Montgomery counties in Pennsylvania and at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and Dover Air Base in Delaware. The numerous health problems, including some cancers, linked to PFAS have led to lawsuits against the companies that make the products, such as DuPont and its successor companies and 3M.
PFAS are so long-lasting that contamination has been found decades after it was released into the environment, and labs show the chemicals stay in the human bloodstream for years.
There are about 4,700 different PFAS, making them a formidable issue to tackle. The New Castle lab, called the Center for PFAS Solutions, is able to test for 40 of them in well water, drinking water, and wastewater.
Launched in 2019 by the Science, Technology & Research Institute of Delaware (STRIDE), the nonprofit organization offers drinking water testing for people with private wells, monitors northern Delaware water supplies for Artesian Water Co. and New Castle Municipal, and helps companies that are developing water filtration products by testing their water. STRIDE was funded by the Longwood Foundation and co-founded by Seetha Coleman-Kammula to bring together experienced scientists from DuPont to redeploy their talents to help the state of Delaware.
The Center for PFAS Solutions also has been selected for funding for a proposal submitted to the Department of Defense to trap and destroy PFAS chemicals.
Scientists at the center have discovered new PFAS-filtering products called ionomers, which they say will outperform other systems. Unlike carbon filtration systems, which can only filter what are called “long-chain” PFAS, the ionomers also target “short-chain” PFAS chemicals. The scientists also are teaming up with the University of Delaware to develop technology that is able to destroy PFAS from contaminated well water. They say that would be a game-changer because currently the only way to destroy PFAS is to transport the contamination to incinerators and heat it to very high temperatures.
They are also working to monitor PFAS in water on farms treated with biosolids, and have a proposal to study wastewater treatment plants as sources of PFAS in the Delaware River.
The lab itself is located in a ZIP code where many aquifers and wells are contaminated with PFAS levels well above the federal health advisory for some of the chemicals of 70 parts per trillion.
Water companies treat what flows out of their customers’ taps to meet the health advisory levels. But people with private wells who must find a way to treat water on their own are at risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested the blood of New Castle residents and found PFAS levels well above the national average. PFAS levels in residents’ water and blood reflects historical exposure there, before treatment facilities were installed around 2014-2016. For example, though the use of firefighting foam is more contained than in years past, the contamination from the use of the product decades ago persists to this day.
“These things hang around in people’s blood for a long time, especially the longer-chain ones like PFOA and PFOS,” said Powley. “So it’s going to take these folks a lot of years to clear this stuff. And, of course, you still have the residents that have private wells and may not be getting any relief at all.”
Powley said when he started researching PFAS in the area, he was surprised to learn just how persistent the chemicals are.
“The water I’m seeing around here, the profile is from stuff that was manufactured 20 to 50 years ago. That’s what I’m seeing now,” he said. “And they stopped making PFAS about 20 years ago, but still we’re seeing very high levels of it, so I knew it was long-lived in the environment, but I didn’t know it was this long-lived.”
PFAS don’t break down and are extremely widespread because they are used in so many products. They are loaded with fluorine, so they don’t behave like other chemicals, Powley said, and they’re very difficult to eliminate.
“They kind of make up their own rules as they go along. And so that’s what makes it challenging. They’re just very different,” he said.
Seetha Coleman-Kammula, president and executive director of the center, said what has surprised her the most since researching PFAS is how mobile some of the short-chain chemicals are — moving through layers of soil into deep aquifers, and traveling to new locations.
“As a chemist, I’m also still surprised about how some long-chain ones are not moving. The short-chain ones are moving, and I’m puzzled by that. I’m intrigued by that,” she said.
“The reason we think it happens is because if the well is closer to a point of release, some of [the PFAS] are getting trapped in the soil. Some are moving. And then if [the well is] further away, the ones that are running away and the shorter-chain and branch ones, they’re moving faster into the water. And so that’s why the water has different types of PFAS.”
PFAS get into the environment directly from waste discharges and from consumer products that end up in landfills, and eventually the chemicals find their way to humans, Powley said. Everybody has PFOA and PFOS in their bloodstreams. The major source is drinking water, but foods also contain PFAS, mostly from wrapping papers and food packaging.
Known health effects from PFAS exposure include lowered infant birth weights, liver damage, certain cancers, increased cholesterol levels, and elevated blood pressure, especially in pregnant people.
“I think of all of the health impacts, the one that really concerns is the effect on children, and how do children get it? Through our breast milk too. So then by definition, you’re also talking about women of childbearing age,” Coleman-Kammula said. “I have a carbon filter at home on top of everything else we have. And in fact, I keep asking Chuck, ‘You think it’s good enough?’ And, well, it’s the best we can do right now … We’d like to see the best technology develop to get to what we think is safer.”
There is currently no regulation for PFAS and water in Delaware, though water companies refer to standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Other states, such as New Jersey, set contamination level limits much lower than the EPA’s health advisory level. Legislators in Delaware have passed a bill awaiting Gov. John Carney’s signature that will start a process to set limits for PFOA and PFOS. And the EPA announced in October what it called a strategic road map to tackle PFAS, though environmental advocates said the plan does not go far enough.
Coleman-Kammula said it’s important that regulatory agencies and governments stop PFAS from entering the environment to begin with.
“So restrict them going onto pizza trays, stop them from going onto — or find replacements for — firefighting foam. Find safer, safer alternatives,” she said. “So research, remediate and restrict, and remove all together.”
Get daily updates from WHYY News!