Innovation Ecosystem

A deep dive into the toxic stew

New health research study to determine extent of PFAS contamination in Rhode Island’s drinking water

Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger, courtesy of VTDigger Facebook page

The manufacturing facility In North Bennington, Vt., originally owned by Chemfab, which was purchased by Saint-Gobain in 2000, at which chemical-coated fabrics using PFOAs were produced until 2002. Saint-Gobain recently agreed to pay $20 million for new water lines for residents whose drinking water had been contaminated by PFOAs.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 7/31/17
A new study of potential contamination of Rhode Island’s drinking from PFAS will begin in August, conducted by the Brown University Superfund Research Program in partnership with the R.I. Department of Health. In communities across New England, identification of contamination of drinking water from the toxic chemical continues to grow, and with it, a better understanding of the potential links to detrimental health impacts caused by the toxic chemical.
How will the findings of Brown epidemiologist researcher Joseph Braun be translated into clinical applications about the dangers of PFOA contamination and the link to obesity, endocrine disruption and epigenetic changes? How will the existing silos at Brown be broken down around public health research, environmental policy studies, and Superfund research projects around drinking water contamination? Is there a way to include the work of Brown economist Anna Aizer in analyzing existing health data outcomes? What are the potential hot spots for PFOA contamination in Rhode Island? When the R.I. General Assembly actually convene the legislative commission on lead contamination of Rhode Island’s drinking water? What are the legal tools to hold corporations accountable for their actions?
The role of community activists in forcing government officials to take action and hold corporations accountable for toxic contamination is a part of the story that often gets left of the news story. In Vermont, for instance, Saint-Gobain, the former owner of the factory that produced chemical coated fabrics using PFOAs in North Bennington, recently agreed to pay $20 million to provide new water lines to homes whose drinking water had been contaminated. The agreement with Vermont officials was the result in large part of pressure by community residents in Vermont as well as in nearby Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
In Massachusetts, community residents are continuing to battle with GE to clean up millions of gallons of PCBs in Pittsfield. Here in Rhode Island, community activists are continuing to battle the proposed Invenergy power plant in Burrillville as well as the planned liquid natural gas facility in Providence.
As was demonstrated by the level of unprecedented activism around efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, the forces of resistance are growing.

PROVIDENCE – With so much political hubbub occurring last week, it was an easy story to miss, overlook or ignore. A tweet was sent out on Friday afternoon, July 28, by the R.I. Department of Health, sharing a news release that announced the agency was partnering with Brown University to gather data about the quality of drinking water from 35 selected water systems in the state, beginning in August and continuing in September.

The researchers are not looking for lead contamination; instead, they will be collecting data on a group of chemicals that are currently unregulated in drinking water: PFOS, or Perfluorooctane Sulfonate, and PFOA, or Perfluorooctanic Acid.

The group of chemicals, known as PFAS, are, according to the news release, “a class of man-made chemicals used in a variety of products and applications that are resistant to water, grease or stains, including non-stick cookware, carpets, upholstered furniture, clothing, and food packaging.”

The news release continued: “Examples of facilities that have the potential to contain these chemicals due to use or disposal include industrial factories, airports, fire training academies, and landfills.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently lowered the health advisory level for the chemicals known as PFAS to 70 parts per trillion because of new findings on health effects, according to the news release.

Those potential adverse health impacts include, according to the news release: developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breastfed infants, cancer, and effects to the liver, immune system or thyroid, according to the news release.

The water sampling and analysis will be conducted by researchers from the Brown University Superfund Research Program under the direction of Jennifer Guelfo, paid for with federal support.

In addition to analyzing drinking water from 35 public water systems in Rhode Island, the search will include public drinking wells located within one mile of a facility that could potentially contain these chemicals or may have in the past, according to the news release.

Drinking water may be a source of some 20 percent of either PFOA and/or PFOS in a person’s body – but consumer products and food are the largest sources of exposure to these chemicals, according the EPA, as cited by the news release.

There is, however, much more to the story about the newly announced drinking water testing program for potential exposure to the toxic chemicals known as PFAS. And, there is a great deal of research knowledge that exists at Brown University, if anyone is willing to make the connections or ask the right questions.

Ubiquitous
The story about the development of unregulated toxic chemicals such as PFAs and their use in consumer products despite potential detrimental health impacts that were “known” by their corporate manufacturers.

On Jan. 10, 2016, The New York Times Magazine published a compelling investigative story by Nathaniel Rich that detailed the way in which DuPont knowingly dumped tons of an unregulated toxic chemical known as perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, used in the manufacture of Teflon. The chemical structure of the PFOA proved to be “uncannily resistant to degradation. It also bound to plasma proteins in the blood, circulating through each organ in the body.” [See link to the story below.]

The story, “The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,” followed the tale of toxic chemical pollution through the eyes of Rob Bilott, who was described as “a corporate defense attorney for eight years. Then he took on an environmental suit that would upend his entire career – and expose a brazen, decades-long history of chemical pollution.”

In December of 2011, after a seven-year study, scientists researching potential connections between PFOA and detrimental health impacts found there was a “probable link” between PFOA and kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, pre-eclampsia and ulcerative colitis, according to Rich’s story.

Among other things, Rich’s story noted in a sidebar that in Rhode Island, there were an estimated 21,900 people in Rhode Island whose drinking water exceeded the “safe” threshold of 0.001 parts per billion established by Philippe Grandjean at the Harvard School of Public Health and Richard Clapp at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, in an analysis of EPA data by the Environmental Working Group.

Spreading concerns
Beginning in 2016 in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., and in Bennington, Vt., state agencies scrambled to deal with another apparent toxic poisoning from PFOA, warning citizens not to drink public water or use it for cooking because of the presence of the toxic chemical PFOA.

The contamination has been allegedly linked to the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics factories, located not far from the municipal wells that provide the small town with its drinking water. Once again, local citizens raised the alarm, forcing state officials into action.

Similar concerns have been recently identified in Merrimack and Litchfield, N.H., following groundwater and well tests that found elevated levels of PFOA near another Saint Gobain facility. There are currently 20 sites in New Hampshire now under investigation.

According to a recent WMUR story, New Hampshire state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan alleged that there was a “probable link” between PFOA and serious illness, including “high cholesterol, thyroid disease, ulcerative colitis, testicular and kidney cancers, and pregnancy-induced hypertension.”

Understanding the consequences
Whatever the results of the new testing program being undertaken by the R.I. Department of Health and the Brown University Superfund Research Program, the potential translation of those findings and what they mean might be found in the ongoing work of Brown University epidemiologist Joseph Braun, who received a $2 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2016 to research the way that toxic chemicals such as PFOA may disrupt the body processes.

The grant is a continuation of work that Braun first undertook as part of the Health Outcomes and Measures of the Environment, or HOME study, in Cincinnati, that was begun in March of 2003.

In that study, a collaborative group of investigators sought to quantify the impact of low-level prenatal and childhood exposures to environmental chemicals on health, growth and neurobehavioral outcomes.

What Braun’s initial research showed, in a study of 204 Cincinnati mothers and their children that looked at the potential effects of perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a toxic industrial chemical used in the manufacture of products such as nonstick coatings, was that relatively high exposure with pregnant mothers resulted in a statistically significant association with the amount and pace of body fat gain in children during the first eight years of life, according to the report published in Obesity in November of 2015.



The study added to a growing body of evidence that man-made chemicals such as PFOA may trigger obesity, with the chemical passing from the pregnant mother to her child. Excess body fat in children may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes later in life.


“Pregnant women [we] studied had a higher concentration of this chemical in their blood, in fact, two times higher than other pregnant women in the United States,” Braun said in an interview published by Brown University in November of 2015. “And children born to these women have a higher body mass index [BMI] and waist circumferences.”

The increased level of body fat in children, known as child adiposity, can pose a significant public health concern, according to Braun. “There isn’t a threshold at which we say you shouldn’t add more fat mass – any more fat mass is bad fat mass,” Braun said in the November 2015 interview. “When you look at the risk of diabetes in adults, the risk is pretty much linear across the whole range of BMI.”



Work on the new, five-year NIH study officially began on Feb. 1, 2016, according to Braun. “We have found that pregnant women in this cohort have above-average concentrations of one of these perfluoroalkyl [chemical] substances, compared to women in the U.S.,” he said in a Feb. 2, 2016, interview with Brown University

Braun plans to investigate further into the possible ways that the toxic chemical interacts with the body’s processes, collecting detailed measures of the epigenetic and hormonal biomarkers.

In a 2016 interview with ConvergenceRI, Braun, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Brown University School of Public Health, talked about how the study would be looking at how toxics such as PFOA are related to bad health outcomes, including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

“We’re going to look at biologic pathways; we’re going to look at hormones. We’re going to be looking at levels of cortisol in the mothers’ hair, to see if the PFOA inhibits the enzyme that breaks down cortisol,” Braun said. “We’re also going to see if there are higher levels of cortisol in the fetus and placenta. We’re also going to look at the epigenetics, figuring out the way that genes are regulated and expressed [in relationship to the toxic chemical].


Explaining the potential connection, Braun said, “If genetics programs the radio, epigenetics determines the volume.” The NIH study, he continued, will examine “how do these chemicals, which can act upon hormonal pathways, impact the epigenetic mechanisms – the expression of [DNA] and how it is regulated.”

When asked whether the study would also be looking at drinking water intake as a factor in the way that toxic chemicals such as PFOA are ingested, Braun responded: “We are interested in this, looking at water as a source of additional, higher level of exposure than others in the U.S. We are quantifying [the levels of PFOA] in water samples taken during pregnancy [of the women in the study]. Those results are pending right now.”

While Braun’s studies are targeting PFOA as a specific toxic chemical, ConvergenceRI asked if there was a need to look at the interactions with a larger stew of toxics that may exist.

“We’ve been talking about mixtures for a long time,” Braun said. “People are trying to figure out what are the tools that are needed to study mixtures. Work is being done on this. I helped to organize a conference this past summer [in 2015] to start implementing statistical techniques related to mixtures. It is not simple; what you want to know depends on the tools you use, and it also depends on the questions you want to ask. Different questions have different meanings for regulations and public health.”

Finally, when asked about potential interventions, Braun drew the distinction between whether the focus needed to be on individuals or policies. “Part of the problem is that it is difficult for individuals to reduce exposure to the multitude of chemicals they are exposed to in our environment,” Braun explained. “Purchasing and using a water filter will reduce the concentration of contaminants. This really goes back to thinking about whether the onus needs to be on individuals or on policies.”

At the intersection of policies, politics and toxics
The recent hiring of Curt Spalding to be a professor in the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society provides Brown University with someone with enormous experience in attempting the navigate the waters between policies, politics and toxic chemical contamination and health threats.

Spalding most recently served as the regional administrator for EPA in its Boston office, overseeing the agency’s work in the six New England states. In a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, he discussed the difficulties in both breaking down silos around environmental issues and finding solutions to toxic contamination. [See link to ConvergenceRI story below.]

Spalding, who had only been on the job for less than a week, said he was unfamiliar with the work of Joseph Braun and had not seen his name on the list of connected scholars to IBES, but that did not preclude Braun becoming an affiliated researcher in the future.

“We’re trying to break the silos down,” Spalding said.

In relationship to PFOA, Spalding said the toxic chemical was something he had worked on quite a lot as the problem of contamination spread across Vermont and New Hampshire.

“It is a very challenging kind of chemical, because it is so persistent and so heavy,” Spalding explained. “It ends up in the groundwater, pretty much no matter what. It is something we need to figure out how to use less of because it is so persistent.”

Spalding suggested that one of the more exciting ideas around that was to explore how the use of green chemicals to replace PFOA in manufacturing processes of products.

Spalding also said that he did not believe that there was much PFOA contamination in Rhode Island of which he was aware.

“With Hoosick Falls and with Bennington,” Spalding continued, “there are ongoing investigations about how the PFOA got into the soil and then into the groundwater; I’m sure the EPA is grinding through this.”

Spalding framed the story as a familiar one in the post-industrial world. “It’s one of those stories where we built something, a molecule, that we did not fully understand the ramifications of it,” he said.

It had great utility, Spalding continued. “It was very important for Teflon; it was very effective in making Gortex, because it was water repellent.”

The path forward, according to Spalding, is not just to better understand the health risks but to prevent such toxic contamination from happening in the first place.

“The big trick is not to let this happen in the first place,” Spalding said, “which is what I like about green chemistry. As someone seeks to develop a new chemical, they need to understand the toxicology of that new chemical, and not just produce it and then worry about the toxicology later.”

Spalding said that EPA was building a strong database with an algorithm to figure out how chemicals can be toxic, borrowing a lot of technology from the drug industry. “In the next 10, 15 years, I think you are going to see a complete improvement,” Spalding said, optimistically, pointing to the new Toxic Substances Control Act. [ConvergenceRI countered that it depended on how the Trump administration actually implemented the new law.]

Spalding continued his optimistic perspective, saying: The new law will allow us to get on these things before they become a crisis, if a chemical is found to have risks.

“It’s all a chase,” he said. “A lot of stuff is already out there.”

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