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PFAS on Cape Cod: What’s the Big Deal?

An article from the fall edition of our quarterly 2022 Community Health Newsletter.

PFAS on Cape Cod: What’s the Big Deal? 

Lately there’s been a lot of buzz about a very long difficult to pronounce compound that leaves some of us scratching our heads. What is it, how do we say it, and why do we care? Try your hand at saying it out loud: Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl. That’s PER-and-PAUL-ee-floor-oh-AL-kill. Not bad, right? You could also just say PFAS.  

The Backstory 

PFAS (plural because there are some 4,000+ variations) are often referred to as “forever chemicals”. They were created in the mid-20th century and became a staple in our global manufacturing processes. From a science perspective, they’re nothing short of extraordinary. In addition to repelling oil and water, they are resistant to friction, heat, and degradation by other chemicals or bacteria. These properties make them virtually indestructible under natural conditions. They last, quite literally, forever. You can find them in everyday items like cleaning supplies, rain jackets, non-stick cookware, personal care products (shampoo, dental floss, nail polish, eye makeup), fire-fighting agents, and stain resistant coatings for carpets, upholstery, and other fabrics. 

Like many iconic forms of human innovation, PFAS have a dark side that wasn’t well understood until the 1990s…a good 40 years after the start of their global and pervasive use. It turns out the very qualities that make PFAS useful are also the qualities that make them hard to address, from an environmental and public health standpoint. Once they find their way into the air, soil, groundwater, and surface water, they remain indefinitely. 

PFAS on Cape Cod 

The fact that Cape Cod is essentially a pile of sand left behind by the glaciers 6,000 years ago makes it particularly sensitive to PFAS contamination. Sand, it turns out, is great at draining rainwater, stormwater, and wastewater from the surface and delivering it to the groundwater and aquifer below (aquifer is a just a fancy word referring to the space underground where water collects). We then tap into the aquifer with wells and public water systems for bathing, drinking, cooking, etc. While sand does have some nifty filtration capabilities for relatively large contaminants such as bacteria, it’s a poor filter for other things, including PFAS.  

On Cape Cod PFAS contamination comes from multiple sources: fire training areas (PFAS make excellent additives to fire extinguishing foams, which can be used quite effectively to fight fuel fires), airports, military bases, landfills, municipal wastewater biosolids, and private septic systems. Because of its unique geology and sandy soils, Cape Cod is an excellent place for nationally renowned organizations to study how PFAS and other contaminants move through the environment and enter the food web and drinking water.  

Have you heard of STEEP? It stands for Sources, Transport, Exposure & Effects of PFAS. It’s an important research project led by the University of Rhode Island in collaboration with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Silent Spring Institute. The goal? To help inform the development of standardized testing methodologies and benchmark’s for PFAS, determine PFAS levels in private wells, and better understand how PFAS impact human health through long-term health studies. Cape Cod is an important hub for STEEP’s research. 

Health Impacts and Health Studies  

Currently, we know very little about how PFAS affect our bodies and the environment. It is believed that PFAS can cause damage to the liver and immune system in humans and animals. Other impacts may be increased cholesterol levels, decreases in infant birth weights, decreased vaccine response in children, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnant woman, and increased risk of kidney or testicular cancer.  

Studies, like STEEP’s work described above, are underway to enhance the science community’s understanding of PFAS contamination, and prompt funding for PFAS phase-out, remediation, and monitoring nationwide and globally. Public awareness and engagement are essential to the success of these efforts. As Cape Codders, we have a unique opportunity to be on the front lines of cutting-edge research to minimize the public health and environmental impacts of these detrimental chemicals.  

Routine Testing for PFAS 

Laboratory testing for PFAS contamination is one challenge that must be addressed nationwide. Laboratory analysis of PFAS in water (drinking water, wastewater, and surface water) is expensive and complex. So even if we know what the health impacts are, we still need accessible, standardized methods of testing to be able to effectively monitor contamination levels.  

Barnstable County Water Quality Lab has been closely tracking recently approved sampling and analysis methodologies, as well as the establishment of maximum contaminant levels for PFAS in Massachusetts. County funds have been set aside to purchase state-of-the-art equipment to assess contamination from six PFAS compounds that were recently regulated by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. Through these efforts, the Laboratory will eventually be ready to support an accessible, affordable monitoring effort on Cape Cod. 

What can you do, right now? 

While the health impacts of PFAS are not fully understood, scientists have determined that the risk is well worth the investment in research, monitoring, remediation, and educating the public to limit PFAS exposure. So get involved, be informed, and engage in this important conversation! The STEEP website and others have excellent resources that describe what PFAS are, how they impact our health and the environment, and what actions you can take to reduce your exposure. Learn how PFAS compounds are being phased out but are still prevalent in the global environment. You can even access the results to the current PFAS studies that have taken place right here on Cape Cod.  


From STEEP: 

PFAS Exposure, Health Risks, Progress, and Actions   

Research Studies in Environmental Fate & Transport, Childhood Risk, Metabolic Effects, and Detection Tools 

From the Massachusetts Department of Public Health 

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Drinking Water – FAQs 

From the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR): 

Health Effects of PFAS 

National Health Studies 


From the Environmental Protection Agency 

Research on PFAS Page