PFAS - The (Not So) Secret and Growing Toxic Threat
9/10/2018 9:00:00 AM
A white, snow-like foam washing ashore on public beaches became increasingly concerning to residents near the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Oscoda Township, Michigan over the past year. The white foam was found to be caused by toxic chemicals called Perfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) leaching through the groundwater. The Michigan News reported a July 2017 test showed PFAS roughly 13,000 times the Michigan limit for PFOS in surface waters like lakes, rivers, or streams. More than 30 sites in 15 communities across Michigan were found to have confirmed PFAS contamination in the soil, groundwater, or surface water.
The Growing National Concern
With stories like the one from Oscoda Township emerging from communities across the country, PFAS are receiving more attention and federal officials are starting to review more protections on exposures to PFAS.
March 2018: The Pentagon discloses a list of 36 U.S. military installations where tests found on-base drinking water contamination exceeding the EPA's lifetime health advisory for PFOA and 90 installations where releases of PFOA have contaminated groundwater (some of these installations have documented offsite migration).
May 2018: The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a historic summit for active engagement and actions to address PFAS. Namely, the EPA committed to initiating steps to identifying MCLs (cleanup objectives), review for a designation as a "hazardous substance," identify and commit to current contaminated groundwater objectives to be completed by fall 2018 (these locations are largely in NH and MI), and assisting federal / state partners to be develop toxicity values.
May 2018: Environmental Working Group (EWG) - a non-profit, non-partisan organization - compiled and analyzed EPA mandated national testing for PFAS (from 2013-2015) in public records for tap water data to find more than 1,500 drinking water systems serving up to 110 million Americans across the country potentially contaminated with PFOS.
Source: Environmental Working Group
What Are PFAS?
For decades, a group of man-made chemicals called Per- and polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS) have been used in hundreds of consumer-based products due to their resistance to heat, water, and oil. Although some types of PFAS are no longer used, products that may still contain PFAS can include non-stick cookware, water-resistant apparel, stain resistant upholstery and carpets, food paper wrappings, fire-fighting foams, and some cosmetics. In fact, PFAS have such a widespread use that they have been found in blood samples of the general U.S. population.
PFAS can resist degradation in the environment and bio-accumulate; meaning that they are persistent in the environment and have a tendency to concentrate in blood and organs over time in biological species. At high concentrations, some PFAS have been associated with health concerns such as low birth weight, delayed onset of puberty, elevated cholesterol levels, and reduced responses by the immune system to vaccinations. Specifically changes to the liver, thyroid, pancreas, and hormone levels have been documented in current investigations into the health effects from exposures to PFAS. Exposure pathways are typically inhalation (dust contaminated with PFAS) and ingestion (consumption of products cooked on, in, or with contaminated food or beverage); though some exposures can occur through dermal (skin) contact.
PFAS and Insurance Exposures
Property owners and operators can use pollution insurance as a risk management tool to mitigate exposures associated with contamination on, at, under, migrating from, or through their owned (or leased) locations. Claims and loss can arise from a variety of sources via the following liability routes (all with associated legal expense and defenses for investigation of allegations to prove negligence or fault on behalf of the accused party):
Remediation (Cleanup Costs): PFAS does not degrade (reduce) naturally in the environment over time. With implementation of new guidelines by the EPA and local governmental sources (such as departments of health or natural resources), there is an unknown valuation for how long and how expensive remediation can be for PFAS in the environment. Historically, remediation efforts for other types of chemicals with similar properties to PFAS have been long-term and very costly. Adding to the long-term costs, with untested remediation methods, cleanup may be a significant source of financial burden to property owners for PFAS.
Bodily Injury: PFAS can bio-accumulate (increase in concentration) when inhaled or ingested. With the data available regarding exposures to drinking water sources, if a property owner is found to have a PFAS contamination plume affecting groundwater that's also a drinking water source, bodily injury claims may arise. Effects of PFAS exposures can include birth defects, immunological disorders, and can negatively affect liver, kidneys, and hormone levels and are potentially cancer-causing in nature.
Property Damage: PFAS can bio-accumulate in the environment affecting fish and other biota. Such natural resources, if damaged, can cause reduction in food chain availability for other animals and wildlife and ecosystems could be negatively impacted. Impacts to biota can lead to large fines and penalties for the reduction in enjoyment of waterways or if the PFAS negatively affected, threatened, or endangered species.
In each of the above exposures, pollution insurance, in conjunction with other risk management protocols and procedures, can assist owners and operators of properties that may be contaminated by or with PFAS in managing their liabilities associated with exposure to this emerging group of chemicals of concern.
How Can You Reduce Your Risks / Exposures to PFAS?
- Review your annual drinking water report for your city, state, municipality and notate any elevated concentrations for PFAS; if concentrations are not identified or are higher than the levels specified by the EPA, consider drinking filtered or bottled water. If you do not know if your water is contaminated, ask your local health department.
- Avoid consumption of contaminated fish. Contact your local or state health or environmental quality departments for fish advisories in your area and follow the advisories.
- Discontinue use of potentially contaminated products in your home or workplace such as non-stick cookware, food paper wrappings, cosmetics, or water-resistant apparel where possible. If you have questions or concerns about the products you use, contact the Consumer Product Safety Commission at (800) 638-2772.
Resources and Additional Information
For additional resources and information, please visit the following websites:
Center for Disease Control (CDC): https://www.cdc.gov/exposurereport/index.html
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): www.epa.gov/chemical-research/research-and-polyfluoroalkyl-substances-pfas
National Toxicology Program: https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/pubhealth/hat/noms/pfoa/index.html
Written by Jamie Langes, Assistant Vice President, Tokio Marine Specialty Insurance Company (TMSIC)
This post is a part of the TMSIC Environmental team's efforts to educate on protections and liabilities for environmental risks. The information contained herein is for discussions and informational purposes and is not intended to be a full disclosure or complete analysis of the liabilities or risks posed to insured(s) in the marketplace.
IMPORTANT NOTICE - The information and suggestions presented by Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company in this E-Brochure is for your consideration in your loss prevention efforts. They are not intended to be complete or definitive in identifying all hazards associated with your business, preventing workplace accidents, or complying with any safety related, or other, laws or regulations. You are encouraged to alter them to fit the specific hazards of your business and to have your legal counsel review all of your plans and company policies.