What are per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) substances?

For more information visit the PFAS website of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Are a Group of Manufactured Chemicals

PFAS are a group of manufactured chemicals that have been used in industry and consumer products since the 1940s because of their useful properties. There are thousands of different PFAS, some of which have been more widely used and studied than others. Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane Sulfonate (PFOS), for example, are two of the most widely used and studied chemicals in the PFAS group. PFOA and PFOS have been replaced in the United States with other PFAS in recent years. One common characteristic of concern of PFAS is that many break down very slowly and can build up in people, animals, and the environment over time.

PFAS Can Be Found in Many Places

PFAS can be present in our water, soil, air, and food as well as in materials found in our homes or workplaces, including:

  • Drinking water – in public drinking water systems and private drinking water wells.
  • Soil and water at or near waste sites - at landfills, disposal sites, and hazardous waste sites such as those that fall under the federal Superfund and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act programs.
  • Fire extinguishing foam - in aqueous film-forming foams (or AFFFs) used to extinguish flammable liquid-based fires.  Such foams are used in training and emergency response events at airports, shipyards, military bases, firefighting training facilities, chemical plants, and refineries.
  • Manufacturing or chemical production facilities that produce or use PFAS – for example at chrome plating, electronics, and certain textile and paper manufacturers.
  • Food – for example in fish caught from water contaminated by PFAS and dairy products from livestock exposed to PFAS.
  • Food packaging – for example in grease-resistant paper, fast food containers/wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and candy wrappers.
  • Household products and dust – for example in stain and water-repellent used on carpets, upholstery, clothing, and other fabrics; cleaning products; non-stick cookware; paints, varnishes, and sealants.
  • Personal care products – for example in certain shampoo, dental floss, and cosmetics.
  • Biosolids – for example fertilizer from wastewater treatment plants that is used on agricultural lands can affect ground and surface water and animals that graze on the land

People Can Be Exposed to PFAS in a Variety of Ways

Due to their widespread production and use, as well as their ability to move and persist in the environment, surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that most people in the United States have been exposed to some PFAS. Most known exposures are relatively low, but some can be high, particularly when people are exposed to a concentrated source over long periods of time. Some PFAS chemicals can accumulate in the body over time.

Current research has shown that people can be exposed to PFAS by:

  • Working in occupations such as firefighting or chemicals manufacturing and processing.
  • Drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
  • Eating certain foods that may contain PFAS, including fish.
  • Swallowing contaminated soil or dust.
  • Breathing air containing PFAS.
  • Using products made with PFAS or that are packaged in materials containing PFAS.

Exposure to PFAS May be Harmful to Human Health

Current scientific research suggests that exposure to high levels of certain PFAS may lead to adverse health outcomes. However, research is still ongoing to determine how different levels of exposure to different PFAS can lead to a variety of health effects. Research is also underway to better understand the health effects associated with low levels of exposure to PFAS over long periods of time, especially in children.

Current peer-reviewed scientific studies have shown that exposure to certain levels of PFAS may lead to:

  • Reproductive effects such as decreased fertility or increased high blood pressure in pregnant women.
  • Developmental effects or delays in children, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, bone variations, or behavioral changes.
  • Increased risk of some cancers, including prostate, kidney, and testicular cancers.
  • Reduced ability of the body’s immune system to fight infections, including reduced vaccine response.
  • Interference with the body’s natural hormones.
  • Increased cholesterol levels and/or risk of obesity.

Scientists at EPA, in other federal agencies, and in academia and industry are continuing to conduct and review the growing body of research about PFAS. However, health effects associated with exposure to PFAS are difficult to specify for many reasons, such as:

  • There are thousands of PFAS with potentially varying effects and toxicity levels, yet most studies focus on a limited number of better known PFAS compounds.
  • People can be exposed to PFAS in different ways and at different stages of their life.
  • The types and uses of PFAS change over time, which makes it challenging to track and assess how exposure to these chemicals occurs and how they will affect human health. 

Willow Grove Naval Air Station (Horsham, PA)

The approximately 1,200 acre site is comprised of the Former Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Willow Grove (NASJRB/WG) and the Willow Grove Air Reserve Station (WGARS), located in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. In 2005, the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Act (BRAC) directed the closure of NASJRB/WG. In early 2011, NASJRB/WG concluded nearly 70 years of service and ceased flight operations. When the WGARS portion of the site was deactivated in 2007 as a result of BRAC, the Air National Guard became responsible for the U.S. Air Force land. Official transfer of authority for WGARS was completed in 2011 with formal renaming of the property as Horsham Air Guard Station. The installations are co-located within one perimeter and are located approximately 25 miles north of Philadelphia.

Aircraft operations at the site began during the 1920s when the facility was named Pitcairn Airfield. The U.S. Navy acquired the airfield in 1942 and began jet training there in 1949. Currently, NASJRB/WG and WGARS provide materials, facilities, services, and training in direct support of all units assigned to the stations. Activities that generate, store, or dispose of hazardous waste at the facilities fall into four general categories: (1) aircraft maintenance; (2) base civil engineering; (3) fuel operation and (4) personnel training. Sources of potential contamination on Navy property include, but are not limited to, the Privet Road Compound, Antenna Field Landfill, Ninth Street Landfill, the former Fire Training Area and a fuel farm. On the Air Force property, a washrack area, a stormwater retention basin, a fuel farm, and a number of hazardous waste storage areas have been identified as potential sources of contamination. The site was added on the Superfund program's National Priorties List in September 1995.

What has been done to clean up the site?

  • The site is being addressed through federal actions. The Navy and the Air National Guard are the lead agencies and EPA provides oversight of the cleanup activities.
  • The long-term remedy for soil at Site 1 Privet Road included no further remedial action following cleanup activities in 1999. EPA selected the long-term interim remedy for groundwater at Site 1 Privet Road in 2008 and the design of land use controls is ongoing.
  • In mid-2014, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), specifically perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluoroooctane sulfonate (PFOS), were found in drinking water wells near the site. Sitewide investigations for PFAS are ongoing.
  • The long-term remedy for Site 6 Abandoned Rifle Range No. 1, Site 7 Abandoned Rifle Range No. 2, and soil at Site 5 Fire Training Area included no further action.

What is the current site status?

  • Site 1, Privet Road Compound, groundwater is contaminated with perchloroethene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) from a suspected off base source, and Site 5, Fire Training Area, groundwater is contaminated with several volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The bioremediation remedy at Site 5 is installed and operating. The sodium bicarbonate is being added to raise the pH of the groundwater. Lactate will be added as the substrate (to feed the bugs). The need for bioaugmentation will be evaluated.
  • The Record of Decision (ROD) for Site 3 – Ninth Street Landfill, also known as Operable Unit (OU) 6 (soil) and OU10 (groundwater) is available for public review.  The Selected Remedy for Site 3 soil (OU6) is Soil Alternative S-2 – Limited Soil and Sediment Removal, On-Site Consolidation, Soil Cover, Land Use Controls (LUCs), and Long-term Monitoring (LTM). No remedial action for Site 3 Groundwater (OU10) is necessary to ensure protection of human health and the environment.
  • The ROD for Site 12 – South Landfill, also known as Operable Unit (OU) 11 (soil), is available for public review.  The Selected Remedy for Site 12 soil (OU11) is Soil Alternative S-3 – Limited Soil and Sediment Removal, On-Site Consolidation, Soil Cover, Land Use Controls (LUCs), and Long-term Monitoring (LTM).
  • The Navy is in the process of developing work plans to carry out the remedies at both Sites 3 and 12.  The soil and sediments removals and the soils covers are expected to be completed in 2022.
  • The Department of the Navy (Navy), the lead agency for site activities, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region III (EPA), in consultation with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP), selected the remedies detailed in the RODs. The response actions selected in the RODs are necessary to protect the public health or the environment from actual or threatened releases of hazardous substances into the environment.

For more information visit the EPA's website for Willow Grove Naval Air and Air Reserve Station.

Warminster Naval Warfare Center (Warminster, PA)

The Naval Air Development Center site in Warminster Township and Ivyland Borough, Bucks County, PA, covers 840 acres and was renamed Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC) in 1993. Commissioned in 1944, NAWC's main function was the research, development and testing of Naval aircraft systems. Wastes were generated during aircraft maintenance and repair, pest control, firefighting training, machine and plating shop operations, spray painting, and various materials research and testing activities in laboratories. These wastes include paints, solvents, sludges from industrial wastewater treatment, and waste oils. NAWC was placed on the Superfund program's National Priorities List in October 1989 due to the threat posed by eight disposal areas to groundwater quality. Pursuant to the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC), NAWC ceased operations in September 1996. 

What has been done to clean up the site?
  • A 1990 Federal Facilities Agreement (FFA) between EPA, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Navy identified 10 areas or operable units (OU) for investigation and possible cleanup. The FFA provided the framework and a schedule to accomplish this work. Currently, the following sites being addressed under the Superfund program: Area A (Sites 1, 2, and 3 and the Impoundment Area), Area B (Sites 5, 6, and 7), and Area C (Sites 4 and 8). A fourth general area, Area D, is located west of Jacksonville Road and primarily includes the main building complex at the former Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC).
  • All remedial construction at the site is complete - all remedies for contaminated soil are in place, and the remedies for contaminated groundwater are operating properly and successfully.
  • In response to trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) contamination detected in off-base private wells, in 1993, the Navy installed water treatment systems in over 40 homes and subsequently connected over 20 homes to public water systems. Since sampling results suggested that the contamination was due to both NAWC and an unknown off-base source, EPA connected an additional 40 residences to a public water system in 1994. In 1995, the Navy connected an additional a commercial facility to public water.
What is the current site status?
  • The Navy continues to address the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) contamination, mainly perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), found at the NAWC site. The Navy, with input from EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, is currently conducting a remedial investigation to define the nature and extent of the contamination and identify possibly sources.
  • The Navy completed its fourth five-year review in 2016. These reviews ensure that the remedies put in place protect human health and the environment, and function as intended by site decision document. The five-year review determined that the remedies related to vapor intrusion are protective in the short-term, however, institutional controls have not been formally evaluated in order to determine if they are adequate to protect future receptors from exposure to volatile organic compounds via the vapor intrusion pathway.

For more information visit the EPA's website for Warminster Naval Warfare Center

PFAS Strategic Roadmap

In October 2021, the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Michael Reagan announced a new agency-wide approach to mitigate PFAS known as the "PFAS Strategic Roadmap." This plan details what the EPA is committed to doing from 2021 to 2024 to research, restrict, and remediate PFAS in communities across the country, including Bucks and Montgomery Counties. 

RESEARCH
EPA commits to investing in research, development, and innovation to increase understanding of PFAS exposures and toxicities, human health and ecological effects, and effective interventions that incorporate the best available science. Their objectives include: 
  • Building the evidence base on individual PFAS and define categories of PFAS to establish toxicity values and methods.
  • Increasing scientific understanding on the universe of PFAS, sources of environmental contamination, exposure pathways, and human health and ecological effects.
  • Expanding research on current and emerging PFAS treatment, remediation, destruction, disposal, and control technologies.
  • Conducting research to understand how PFAS contribute to the cumulative burden of pollution in communities with environmental justice concerns.
RESTRICT
EPA commits to pursuing a comprehensive approach to proactively prevent PFAS from entering air, land, and water at levels that can adversely impact human health and the environment. Their objectives include: 
  • Using and harmonizing actions under all available statutory authorities to control and prevent PFAS contamination and minimize exposure to PFAS during consumer and industrial uses.
  • Placing responsibility for limiting exposures and addressing hazards of PFAS on manufacturers, processors, distributors, importers, industrial and other significant users, dischargers, and treatment and disposal facilities.
  • Establishing voluntary programs to reduce PFAS use and release.
  • Preventing or minimizing PFAS discharges and emissions in all communities, regardless of income, race, or language barriers.
REMEDIATE
EPA commits to broadening and accelerating the cleanup of PFAS contamination to protect human health and ecological systems. Their objectives include: 
  • Harmonizing actions under all available statutory authorities to address PFAS contamination to protect people, communities, and the environment.
  • Maximize responsible party performance and funding for investigations and cleanup of PFAS contamination.
  • Helping ensure that communities impacted by PFAS receive resources and assistance to address contamination, regardless of income, race, or language barriers.
  • Accelerating the deployment of treatment, remediation, destruction, disposal, and mitigation technologies for PFAS, and ensure that disposal and destruction activities do not create new pollution problems in communities with environmental justice concerns

You can read a comprehensive overview of the EPA's "PFAS Strategic Roadmap" on their website here.