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PFAS chemicals are ‘everywhere’ in lagoon

Everywhere scientists look in the Indian River Lagoon, they find so-called 'forever chemicals,' in some places at almost four times the levels of what’s safe in drinking water, according to a recently published scientific study by the University of Florida.

UF researchers have been measuring the presence of these potentially cancer-causing compounds in the lagoon for years, but with greater focus over the past two years.

John Bowden, assistant professor of chemistry at UF’s department of physiological sciences, said the latest study — published in the journal Chemosphere

showed that the Banana River had the highest levels of PFAS. Next was the southern Indian River, followed by the northern Indian River and then the Atlantic coast. (PFAS also has been found in sea spray, Bowden said.)

The researchers plan to present their latest results in Satellite Beach, streamed live online Saturday.

The compounds, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) get into the lagoon from contaminated soil, sewage, reclaimed water, biosolids, and countless consumer products. Experts say there’s no cheap or easy way of getting them out of the environment, or of even measuring them.

'The challenge with some of the really volatile ones is that there’s not a lot of real good methods out there,' Bowden said.

PFAS are known to contaminate the drinking water of an estimated 200-plus million people, according to the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, which published an analysis in late 2020 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters , using drinking water testing results from federal and state environmental agencies. While no one’s drinking lagoon water, PFAS compounds keep popping up in fish, alligators, manatees, seagrass along the waterway from Kennedy Space Center to Patrick Space Force Base.

The extensive historical use of firefighting foams at the base and KSC, as well as the discharge of wastewater, coupled with the stagnant nature of the waterway contributed to the higher levels in Banana River, the researchers said in their recent paper.

PFAS are very stable man-made chemicals linked to ill health effects that scientists are just beginning to unravel and understand. And they are being found everywhere scientists look for them in the environment.

In humans, they have been linked with increased risk of cancer and thyroid disease; higher cholesterol; lower fertility and infant birth weight, and other reproductive issues. PFAS can even blunt the effectiveness of COVID-19 and other vaccines.

But for many of those outcomes, a direct cause and effect is unknown or unclear. The chemicals can remain in the body for decades with indeterminant consequences. Thousands of PFAS compounds aren’t even yet measured, so the combined long-term toxic effects also remain uncertain.

For its most resent study, UF collected water 57 samples from the lagoon in Brevard County, in December 2019, and another 40 samples from corresponding locations in February 2021. They screened for 92 PFAS compounds, identifying 21 across all sites, finding mean PFAS levels of 86 parts per trillion in the 57 samples collected in 2019 and 77 ppt in the 40 samples collected in 2021.

Maximum sum of PFAS from single sample 265 parts per trillion — 3.78 times EPA’s drinking water health advisory level (HAL).

In 2016, EPA has established an unenforceable health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion.

The EPA plans a mandatory drinking water standard for the two most common PFAS compounds — PFOA and PFOS — by the end of 2023, but new limits on industrial discharges of the compounds might not come for another decade or longer. The federal agency also is expected to lower the health advisory level for the two compounds in coming months and to set advisory levels for two other PFAS chemicals commonly found on military installations.

But there aren’t many long-term studies of PFAS within sensitive estuaries, lakes, rivers and other surface-water ecosystems. That’s why UF wanted to go looking.

Some of the highest levels in groundwater have been detected in Brevard County, the UF authors note, in the Indian River Lagoon near Patrick Space Force Base, with PFAS exceeding 4.3 million parts per trillion.

UF’s study, which used volunteer citizen scientists to help collect samples in Brevard, is part of a three-year pilot study of PFAS in Brevard, conducted under an almost $800,000 EPA grant.

Brevard offers a unique model site to investigate potential exposure and health implications for wildlife, to better understand and manage other critical coastal systems . The UF researchers plan to measure PFAS before and after tropical cyclones, to see how the chemicals move during floods.

Bowden and his students have sampled the Indian River Lagoon water, bottom plants and sediment. For the past several years, His UF lab has monitored PFAS in alligators, fish and more recently, in manatees.

Distinctive clustering of PFAS in Brevard suggests multiple sources of contamination.

'It is hypothesized that the ubiquitous distribution of PFAS in aquatic ecosystems is primarily the result of direct discharge from consumer products and industrial processes, such as by military fire training areas and wastewater treatment centers,' the UF authors wrote.

'In Florida, elevated concentrations of PFAS have been reported in ground water, surface water, drinking water, soils, sediments, and wildlife near military bases, airports, and firefighting training facilities.'

DoD installations are required to provide water filters or connect nearby residents with public water supplies if PFAS levels exceed 70 parts per trillion, an advisory level set by the EPA.

Last year, Congress provided more than $500 million for PFAS cleanup efforts at military installations.

Jim Waymer

is an environment reporter at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Waymer at 321-261-5903 or

jwaymer@floridatoday.com.

Or find him on Twitter:

@JWayEnviro

or on Facebook:

www.facebook.com/ jim.waymer

If you go?

What: 2nd Annual Community Conference on Coastal Communities and Resilience to PFAS in Florida. This event is free and open to the public.

When: 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday

Where: 565 Cassia Blvd., Satellite Beach, Florida

The conference focuses on links between PFAS contamination and extreme weather events in Brevard County and Jacksonville.

The UF researchers plan to provide project updates. Attendees can participate in person or online by registering for the event at the following link: eventbrite.com/e/2022 -coastal-community-pfas-conference -tickets-337415367447?aff=Media

Zoom Meeting Link to attend online: bit.ly/3sUTvCT

Learn more about this project here: fight4zero.org/ufproject

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