Waste Incinerators May Be Spreading “Forever Chemicals” Through the Air

As states work to limit the use of PFASOne path to their spread is often overlooked: incineration consumer waste such as clothing, textiles and food packaging.

The waste stream of PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl compounds) is being monitored by regulatory agencies. contaminated leachate from landfills. However, about 12% of the U.S. waste stream goes to the country’s 75 aging municipal solid waste incineratorsThis includes little research on the likely byproducts of burning PFAS tainted trash.

Now “PFAS in air emissions and incineration are becoming more of a focus,” Lydia Jahl, a science and policy associate for the Green Science Policy Institute, told EHN.

Consuming contaminated water or food can lead to serious health problems. the highest known risk for PFAS exposureThe link to is multiple negative health outcomesSome cancers, some reproductive problems, and birth defects are all possible. Researchers warn that PFAS could be spread by incinerators’ airborne emissions, increasing the risk for contaminated water or soil downwind.

Research from Europe suggests that waste incinerators may be contributing to PFAS pollution in the air. However, U.S. regulators have yet to track this threat.

Municipal waste incinerators only report hazardous air pollutants — like dioxin, mercury, and lead — to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) every three years, and PFAS compounds are not yet listed in this category. Some PFAS were recently added to the agency’s Toxic Release InventoryAlthough the law requires that toxic compounds be reported annually, researchers have made observations. that the initial PFAS reportingAirborne emissions are likely to be underestimated

Dubbed “forever chemicals,” PFAS are notoriously long-lived due to strong carbon-fluorine bonds. EPA’s research suggests that these “chemicals are not really broken down at normal incinerator temperatures,” Tim Schroeder, a geologist at Bennington College in Vermont who has studied the movement of PFAS through local ecosystems, told EHN.

“Much is currently unknown” about how PFAS compounds behave during incineration, a spokesperson for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development wrote in an email to EHNExplaining that PFAS molecules may not be broken down or may partially decompose at lower temperatures and recombine to create new PFAS.

A group of international scientists came to a similar conclusion in a recent study. study of fluoropolymers, a sub-class of PFAS, writing that “it is currently unclear whether typical municipal solid waste incinerators can safely destroy fluoropolymers without emissions of harmful PFAS and other problematic substances.”

The Solid Waste Association of North America has more confidence that incinerators “designed to manage non-hazardous waste are destroying most of the PFAS in municipal solid waste” based on the potential temperatures they can achieve, Jeremy O’Brien, SWANA’s director of applied research, told EHN. That premiseHowever, the calculation is not based upon emissions testing or continuous temperature monitoring at U.S. Incinerators. “Further testing of actual emissions may be useful to better quantify potential health risks,” he added.

EPA has no field testing underway to determine what kinds or levels of PFAS may be emitted through municipal waste incineration, and “no timeline for testing,” but a spokesperson wrote that characterizing these emissions “remains an EPA priority.” Meanwhile, Europe has begun assessing potential public health and environmental risks from PFAS exposure linked to waste incineration.

Europe Finds “Alarming” Levels of PFAS Downwind of Incinerators

The overwhelming number of PFAS chemicals that can be found in incinerator emissions can make testing difficult. upwards of 9,000. Bioassays were used by researchers in Europe. [which detect compounds in living tissues or organs]In a Zero Waste Europe study, it was possible to avoid the chemically assessing stack emissions for any potential PFAS. The research was funded by the European Union and involved testing for PFAS and other pollutants in animal and plant cellsThree waste incinerators are located downwind.

This book was released in January the studiesHigh levels of PFAS found in chicken eggs, mosses and other foods near a waste incinerator in the Czech Republic. Abel Arkenbout (a Dutch toxicologist working for the ToxicoWatch Foundation) reported that an incinerator was located in Madrid, Spain. “alarming” PFAS levelsIn pine needles, 10x greater than the reference specimen.

Arkenbout based on these findings and a review of some not yet-published studies, told EHN via email, “our hypothesis is that PFAS cannot be destroyed completely at temperatures used in Waste-to-Energy [municipal waste] incinerators.”

This biomonitoring study was the first of its kind in Europe. Xenia Trier, a chemical, environment and human health expert with Air Pollution, Environment and Health, conducted the study. European Environment Agency, wrote EHN that “emissions of PFAS from waste facilities are on the radar in Europe, and there will likely be more research studies on this through national and EU funding.”

Airborne PFAS

If the European hypothesis is true that incinerators emit PFAS, where do those molecules go then?

Tracking the movement of PFAS emitted from industrial or incinerator stacks is a more “three-dimensional” challenge than following it downstream in a river flowing one way with two banks, explained Ralph Mead, a chemistry professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and co-author of a recent study tracking how PFAS compounds settle out of the atmosphere.

Temperature, humidity and wind speed affect the distance and path that airborne molecules travel. They also determine when compounds transition from a gas or particle to a gas.

Schroeder, Bennington College, found that PFAS dispersal was occurring in a downwind area of approximately 125 miles. Some sites were 2,000 feet higher than the factory source in a Vermont study. While both that study and the UNCW one assessed PFAS dispersion from manufacturing facilities, “it’s a logical extension,” Schroeder said, to assume similar transport patterns from incinerator stacks.

Mead found that the North Carolina facility Mead studied was a Chemours (formerly DuPont), which produces a newer PFAS compound called GenX. the chemical HFPO-DAThis product is advertised as a safer substitute (despite the fact that it does not contain any harmful chemicals). oldRecent developments researchConfirming that it is poses similar health and environmental threats). EPA modeling revealed that 97.4% traveled more than 93 mi from the GenX emitted by the site.

‘Legacy’ forms of PFAS (manufactured prior to 2015) have been found at both poles due to atmospheric transport, and the GenX replacement — which EPA describes as “more mobile” and equally persistent — is now moving around the globe, even turning up in Arctic waters.

Atmospheric deposition is unquestionably one of the routes of PFAS contamination, Mead said, and it’s gaining attention. “From a scientific perspective, it’s fascinating. From an environmental health and human health perspective, it’s pretty scary.”