Fluorosurfactants and the Great Lakes
Posted on: August 7, 2019
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) are fluorosurfactants, chemical compounds that are based on a chain of fluorine that may be long or short. The image above represents the chemical structure of one long-chain member of the PFASs group, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS). (Image: Public Domain)

Great Lakes PFASs Awareness Ramps Up

Over the past couple of years, various municipalities in Great Lakes states and provinces have detected per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) in drinking water sources—some above and some below safe levels. This group of substances includes the mainly phased out chemical compounds perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), as well as the less researched GenX chemicals. Due to their persistence in the environment, PFASs are present at some level in many waterways, groundwater and the blood of humans and other animals. In samples from 2015 to 2017 of fish in the Great Lakes in Canada, PFOS was found to be below the limits harmful to fish health, but above guidance levels that would be safe for predators that eat those fish due to its tendency towards bioaccumulation.

Evidence suggests PFASs can bioaccumulate and biomagnify when ingested. Ingestion of large quantities of some PFASs have been shown to result in harmful effects to human health. Knowledge about these harmful effects is only fairly recent and PFASs were used in American and Canadian products for decades before being phased out. PFASs may still be used in imported goods especially in products that are intended to resist heat, stains, grease and/or water. They are also still used in Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam (AFFF) in the U.S. and Canada. Although the Canadian Government only allows the use of PFASs containing AFFF under certain exceptions, U.S. states have been left to implement their own regulations as the federal government has not made any yet. The Government of Michigan, for example, has implemented a task force to deal with these Forever Chemicals. They have asked firefighting departments to take several specific actions that will limit the release of PFASs into the environment, such as not using PFAS containing AFFF in training exercises.

PFAS-containing Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam (AFFF) is highly effective in suppressing liquid fires and is useful in military and aviation fires. There is currently lack of an adequate non-PFAS option for these types of fires. (Image: Public Domain. Photographed on February 16, 1992 by McDonald, Dale M.)

Although U.S. federal regulations of PFASs are lacking, in February of this year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released an action plan to manage PFASs. Meanwhile, the International Joint Commission (IJC) is working on a draft Binational Strategy for PFASs under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. There has recently been a resurgence in awareness of PFASs due to these new efforts, but progress toward federally managing PFASs in Canada began back in 2006.

History of Canadian Regulation

In July 2006, the final ecological screening assessment report for perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), a member of the PFASs group, was published in the Canada Gazette (the government of Canada’s official newspaper). In this report, Environment Canada and Health Canada concluded that the levels of PFOS entering into the environment at the time was, or would become, harmful to ecosystems and biodiversity. The risk management strategy that was developed in response to these findings, recommended that levels of PFOS being released into the environment should be reduced as much as technically and economically possible. In 2009, pursuant to the Perfluorooctane Sulfonate Virtual Elimination Act, the Minister of the Environment and Minister of Health added PFOS to the Virtual Elimination List compiled under subsection 65(2) of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999.

A screening assessment and risk management strategy was also developed in 2012 for another member of the PFAS group—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). In August 2012 the Final Screening Assesment on PFOA was released in the Canada Gazette. A proposed risk management approach for the substance was also released in August 2012. PFOA was also added to the List of Toxic Substances under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 following these assessments. PFOA compounds are subject to the Prohibition of Certain Toxic Substances, 2012, which also incorporates the Perfluorooctane Sulfonate and its Salts and Certain Other Compounds Regulations.


Government of Canada

U.S. Government and Agencies

Interactive Map – PFAS contamination in the U.S.

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