Every day we are bombarded with messages warning us about hidden, disease-causing agents that are present in our food, water, and air. The newest hot topic for these public health warnings are the dangers of persistent organic pollutants, commonly referred to as “forever” chemicals, that can linger in the environment and the human body for decades due to their structural stability. The most prominent compound in this chemical group is known as PFOA, or perfluorooctanoic acid. This chemical has health impacts ranging from immune system complications to a suite of cancer diagnoses. Commonly occurring in non-stick coatings (i.e. Teflon) or fire-fighting foams, this non-natural chemical has leached into drinking water sources across the United States. The presence of PFOA is well-known in the Ohio River Valley, the location of a Dupont Plant where PFOA is manufactured. 

Our continued awareness of persistent pollutants has motivated both the search for safer alternatives and deeper investigations into pollutant dispersion, monitoring the spread of these potentially dangerous substances. Past investigations have primarily focused on the downstream watershed concentration levels, as PFOA is known to accumulate in soils and groundwater downstream. A new study conducted in the Ohio River Valley highlights how the prevailing Northeasterly winds are contributing to high PFOA concentrations upstream of the PFOA manufacturing facility. This study looked specifically at PFOA air emissions from the facility, estimated to average 5900 kg/year, and how the emissions travel via wind patterns and deposit into upstream surface water sources. Evidence now suggests that these chemicals can be transported downwind and deposited into surface water bodies up to 28km upstream from the point source.

As highlighted in the movie “Dark Waters”, the contamination of drinking water sources and transport of PFOA compounds has been directly linked to adverse ecological and human health outcomes. This study shows how the reach of these chemicals is quickly and easily expanded by environmental factors. New scientific methodology and ways of thinking about chemical dispersion has revealed larger impact areas than were previously considered. As these substances spread further from the point source, the potential adverse health impacts are also likely to expand.

Managing Correspondent: Samantha Tracy

Press Articles: “Winds spread PFAS pollution far from a manufacturing facility

Original Scientific Articles: “Evidence of Air Dispersion: HFPO–DA and PFOA in Ohio and West Virginia Surface Water and Soil near a Fluoropolymer Production Facility

Image credit: Pixabay

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