Increased testing for PFAS may reveal a problem Hawaii is not prepared to deal with.
For years, Ron Fitzgerald and Sam A‘i have tended to their farm in Waiawa. What began as a dream of raising their family on the land led to teaching students Native Hawaiian practices of caring for the aina.
But now, they’re worried about how “forever chemical” pollution could impact their taro patch and fish ponds. The Hawaii Army National Guard has identified toxic chemicals known as PFAS in the nearby groundwater and is now in the process of testing local private wells.
If levels of the chemicals exceed federal safety standards, the military plans to deliver bottled water to property owners whose private wells are impacted. But at a Waiawa community briefing last month, Fitzgerald and A’i said that’s not going to work.
“Our well not only feeds our family, we not only drink from it, but we also feed our community,” A‘i said.
Waiawa is among the first communities in Hawaii to be advised that their water may contain PFAS (pronounced P-fass), which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
Called “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment, PFAS have been connected to a litany of health impacts, including cancer, immune disruption and fertility problems.
As awareness of their toxicity grows, water purveyors, the military and government agencies in Hawaii are starting to test for PFAS, and more testing is on the way. On Tuesday, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced the first proposed regulations for PFAS that would require water utilities to test for them and limit amounts to low levels.
The results of increased PFAS testing threaten to expose a problem Hawaii isn’t equipped to handle. Solutions are likely to cost millions of dollars, and it’s unclear who will pay. It’s a struggle that’s already playing out on the mainland, as cities and states discover PFAS contamination and file lawsuits in the hopes of forcing polluters to cover the cost of cleanup.
Hawaii is still in its PFAS discovery phase.
On Oahu, the Hawaii Department of Health has announced PFAS detections in five communities’ drinking water – four in the past few months. The areas with reported detections so far are home to nearly 500,000 residents. Two areas, Kunia and Waipio, had PFAS levels far above what the federal government considers safe. In 2020 and 2021, the chemicals were found in the Navy’s Pearl Harbor drinking water system, which serves over 90,000 people, at levels the EPA now considers a health threat.
Separately, PFAS has been detected in the soil and groundwater near the Honolulu and Kahului airports and at eight Hawaii military sites.
As the dangers of these chemicals become better known, and the level of PFAS considered safe to consume approaches zero, communities that thought their drinking water was clean may discover it is contaminated at levels no longer considered potable. And with that knowledge comes an obligation to do something, community members say.
“The fact that PFAS is being found in water in areas all over Oahu should be an alarm,” said Healani Sonoda-Pale, a member of the advocacy group Oahu Water Protectors.
The EPA said last year that even a minuscule exposure to PFOA or PFOS – two of the better-studied PFAS varieties – is dangerous. Those amounts are so small, in fact, that tests can’t currently detect them. The regulatory thresholds proposed on Tuesday are higher so that they can be “reliably measured,” the EPA said in its announcement. The new rules won’t take effect until the completion of a one-year public comment period.
In the meantime, the Hawaii Department of Health is advising to use a home filtration device. But there is a lack of system-wide solutions to address PFAS in Hawaii.
Water purveyors in the state don’t generally filter with methods that can remove these chemicals. Neither do wastewater treatment plants. Liquid wastewater, tainted with PFAS, is discharged into Hawaii’s coastal waters, and solid waste containing PFAS is used as fertilizer for agricultural purposes or incinerated at temperatures that may be too low to actually destroy the chemicals.
“For the state of Hawaii to say, ‘Well, if you’ve got a problem with it, just go get a water filter, that is washing your hands (of the problem),” said Pat Elder, a Maryland-based environmental advocate focused on PFAS.
What Hawaii really needs is an “action plan” on PFAS, Sen. Mike Gabbard said in an interview.
Last year, the Legislature passed a bill banning PFAS in firefighting foams and certain food packaging, although that law doesn’t kick in until 2025. Another bill this year, Senate Bill 504, would expand that prohibition to cosmetics and personal care products.
But it’s not enough, Gabbard said.
“Obviously, further action is needed,” said Gabbard, who chairs the state Senate’s agriculture and environment committee. “I’ll be looking at that in terms of next session.”
The PFAS Problem
Many Oahu residents may have learned about PFAS for the first time when 1,300 gallons of PFAS-based firefighting foam concentrate spilled at the Navy’s Red Hill fuel facility in November.
But PFAS chemicals aren’t new.
They’ve been used since the 1940s to manufacture products that are resistant to water, stains and fire, including Teflon pans, Scotchguard, food packaging, raincoats, furniture, cosmetics, clothing and even dental floss. They’re also a key ingredient in firefighting foam, which is why PFAS pollution has been a particular concern in firefighter training areas, including airports and military installations.
PFAS is an umbrella term for thousands of related chemicals. The two most notorious varieties, PFOA and PFOS, are the most well-studied and, perhaps consequently, are manufactured less than they used to be.
The U.S. military is planning to transition from PFAS-based firefighting foam called Aqueous Film Forming Foam, or AFFF, to a non-PFAS alternative, and some companies are voluntarily phasing PFAS out of their products. However, so-called “legacy PFAS” remain in the environment, and manufacturers continue to produce other PFAS varieties about which less is known.
Industry lobbyists argue these newer PFAS haven’t been shown to be as dangerous as legacy PFAS, but environmental advocates counter that they haven’t been shown to be safe, either.
Overall, PFAS are associated with a “laundry list” of health effects, said Courtney Corignan, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied them.
They include breast, kidney, testicular and pancreatic cancers as well as high cholesterol, compromised vaccine efficacy in children, decreased fertility in women and pregnancy-induced hypertension, and low birth weight.
The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, classifies PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
PFAS can get into our bodies in a variety of ways, including by consuming fish from PFAS-tainted water, eating food wrapped in PFAS-based packaging, swallowing contaminated soil or dust or using certain consumer products, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It can be transferred from mothers to babies via breast milk. There is also some evidence it can be absorbed through the skin.
But the pathway of biggest concern right now is drinking water, Corignan said. One 2020 study found that an estimated 200 million people in the U.S. receive tap water tainted with PFAS..
And those who live near military fire training sites are more likely to have PFAS in their water, Corignan said.
“PFAS are persistent and are easily passed from soil into groundwater and migrate into surface water,” Corignan said. “Even a relatively small amount of AFFF can contaminate a very large amount of water and travel and persist much more than other contaminants.”
Water is also consumed by farm animals, Corignan noted. PFAS have been detected in cows, chickens and other livestock, she said.
One New Mexico dairy farmer was forced to euthanize his entire herd at an estimated cost of nearly $6 million because PFAS contamination made them unusable for milk or meat, a local news station reported.
The discovery of PFAS in drinking water across the country has kicked off a wave of litigation to determine who will pay to deal with it.
Since 2005, thousands of lawsuits have been filed against PFAS manufacturers like the 3M Co. and Dupont which knew the chemicals were toxic but didn’t share that information with consumers or regulators, Bloomberg Law reported last year.
Many of the cases were filed in relation to contamination in Parkersburg, West Virginia, the focus of the movie “Dark Waters.” But other lawsuits have been filed as well in states like Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts, where Nantucket residents temporarily lived off bottled water after PFAS contamination was found near its airport.
The plaintiffs include personal injury claimants, water providers who are facing massive PFAS cleanup costs, homeowners dealing with reduced property values and state attorneys general pursuing compensation for damage to the environment, according to Bloomberg.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents PFAS manufacturers, has argued that PFAS are necessary to deliver products and services people have come to rely on. The chemicals are used by the oil and gas, construction and health care industries and in the manufacturing of electronics, cars, planes, outdoor apparel, and safety equipment used by first responders and the military.
The group is suing the EPA over the PFAS health advisory it released last year.
“PFAS are a diverse universe of chemistries with properties critical to a number of important uses, including renewable energy efforts, medical supplies integral to modern health care, and products critical to the resiliency of our supply chains,” the ACC said last year.
“Importantly, all PFAS chemistries are not the same. Each chemistry has its own unique properties and uses, as well as unique environmental and health profiles.”
But Hawaii Rep. Nicole Lowen, who has spearheaded legislation targeting PFAS, says the costs outweigh the benefits.
“If we keep importing stuff into the state and don’t stem the flow, eventually – because it persists in the environment, it keeps building up – you could hypothetically envision a future where the water in Hawaii is not safe to drink,” she said. “We would like to avoid that.”
How PFAS Spread Throughout The Environment
The problem goes beyond drinking water. PFAS builds up in human bodies, but it also passes through them into wastewater, which comes right back to us – in rainwater, in the ocean, in irrigation systems and more.
“They just sort of cycle around through the ecosystem,” Honolulu Environmental Services Director Roger Babcock said.
The exact level of PFAS present in the islands’ wastewater and landfills is the subject of an ongoing study by the Hawaii Department of Health, which will analyze samples from Honolulu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii counties.
But the chemicals have already been detected at the Sand Island Wastewater Treatment Plant, Babcock said.
PFAS are not filtered out at standard municipal wastewater treatment plants. Instead, they treat the waste to remove nutrients and bacteria and divide the material into liquids and sludge, or “biosolids.”
Babcock said most of the PFAS-tainted water is discharged a mile offshore into the ocean, where Hawaii gets the fish that are central to the local diet. A 2021 study detected three kinds of PFAS at low levels in Hawaii goatfish caught around Oahu. Studies of lakes on the continent have shown extremely hazardous levels of PFAS in fish, although research suggests fish taken from the ocean have lower levels.
The liquid waste that Honolulu doesn’t dispose of in the ocean is injected into the ground, Babcock said. Injection wells are located in Haleiwa, Kahuku and Waimanalo in areas close to the coast that are not pumped for drinking water, he said. On other islands, treated wastewater is used to irrigate crops, Babcock said.
Wastewater sludge is either burned, repurposed as fertilizer or disposed of at the Waimanalo Gulch landfill, Babcock said. But none of these options make the PFAS disappear.
Incineration occurs at H-Power in Kapolei, Babcock said. But it’s unclear whether the PFAS are actually being destroyed there. What makes the chemicals so good at putting out fires makes it difficult to break them down with heat. Research suggests that standard incinerators may not be capable of breaking down PFAS, and that doing so may require particularly high temperatures.
Honolulu does not have a specialized incinerator, and its temperature is at the lower end, Babcock said.
“We don’t really know what level of PFAS destruction we achieve at H-Power,” Babcock said.
He also didn’t know whether the PFAS burned at H-Power becomes ash sent to the Waimanalo Gulch landfill or is dispersed into the air, exposing the nearby community to emissions.
Carignan said that’s a concern.
“If you don’t break those bonds, well now you’re just taking the PFAS and putting it out the smokestack and then it’s going to dry deposit all over the place,” Corginan said. “So that’s probably not a good idea.”
Some of Honolulu’s wastewater sludge is filtered for pathogens, dried and turned into pellets that are used to grow grass, plants and food. The intention is environmentally friendly: to divert waste otherwise destined for landfills.
“Generally, reuse of biosolids is a good thing,” Babcock said. “It’s recycling.”
But without removing the PFAS, the chemicals can be absorbed by plants, especially those with a high water content, according to Corignan. And newer forms of PFAS are showing higher rates of uptake by plants, she said.
“There is a certain potential for it to be impacting our food safety,” she said.
In 2019, an estimated 3,100 dry metric tons of pellets were produced at Sand Island by the company Synagro. The majority of that went to Niu Nursery, according to a 2019 factsheet published by the Hawaii Department of Health. Niu Nursery sells potting soil, manure and other soil products at local stores like City Mill and Home Depot, according to its website.
“The pellets produced provide a natural substitute for synthetic fertilizer to Oahu’s agricultural and landscaping communities,” the website of the city’s contractor Syangro says.
A representative for Niu Nursery did not respond to a request for comment.
Pellets are also used on city parks and golf courses and by private homeowners who pick up the material directly from the plant, the DOH factsheet states.
Getting PFAS out of wastewater would not be an easy – or cheap – task, Corignan said. The science is still being researched. Once cost-effective solutions are developed, wastewater treatment plants across the country may need to be upgraded, she said.
“It’s probably going to be a pretty long process,” she said.
As the dangers of PFAS become more well known, Babcock said the county may have to change how it handles the island’s waste.
“We need to figure out what we’re going to have to do and plan for it and budget for it,” he said. “Right now, we don’t know what that is going to involve.”
The Military’s PFAS Legacy
The Department of Defense is in the process of investigating PFAS use on 706 of its installations across U.S. states and territories, including 28 locations in the Hawaiian islands.
Their findings will determine what areas get remediated and which will not.
Already, samples taken during “site inspections” have revealed PFAS contamination at eight Hawaii installations including, on Oahu, Army National Guard sites in Waiawa and Kalaeloa, Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam and the Kaneohe Bay Marine Corp Base, as well as the Pacific Missile Range Facility Barking Sands on Kauai.
The military has determined several other Hawaii military sites are unlikely to have PFAS pollution requiring cleanup and has decided no further action is necessary, according to the DOD’s most recent progress report published at the end of December. Other sites are still under review.
At facilities that test positive for one of the two best-known types of PFAS – PFOS or PFOA – the military will assess whether the chemical poses a high risk to human health or the environment. If it does, the facility will be put on a path to remediation, which could take years. If it falls below the risk threshold, it will be left alone, according to a DOD outline of the process.
But just because a case is closed doesn’t mean the area is necessarily free of PFAS.
The military’s investigative process, in alignment with EPA regulations, leaves open the possibility that sites contaminated with dangerous levels of PFAS could slip through the cracks.
To determine whether AFFF may have been used at the site, the military has been conducting “preliminary assessments” in which officials review records and speak to people who worked there in the past. If, through those methods, they don’t find reason to believe PFAS was used, the case is closed, and no actual PFAS testing is done.
In other words, the absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence.
The military itself acknowledges in some of these reports that record-keeping on AFFF usage wasn’t required for most of its history, and anecdotal accounts from former employees may be limited by their knowledge and memories. Nevertheless, at numerous installations, the military had deemed these cursory searches sufficient reason to stop looking.
“Further investigation of PFAS is not recommended,” a preliminary assessment of six U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii locations states.
Even if the military does detect PFAS, the safety limits on which they are assessing the results are in flux.
The DOD has been using the EPA’s 2016 safety threshold of 70 parts per trillion for PFOS and PFOA even though the EPA released updated health guidance last year saying that amounts as small as 1 part per trillion are dangerous. The proposed regulations released by the EPA on Tuesday would limit PFOS and PFOA to a somewhat higher level – 4 parts per trillion – not necessarily because it’s safe but because scientists cannot test for amounts much smaller than that.
In a statement, Department of Defense spokeswoman Kelly Flynn said the DOD is evaluating how to incorporate the proposed regulations into its investigative process.
At the recent PFAS briefing in Waiawa, Malia Marquez, a Native Hawaiian woman, said the military bears responsibility for cleaning up its mess.
“This is my aina. We had the cleanest water from Haloa,” she said, referring to the mythological Hawaiian figure who was a son of the gods. “That is our ancestor. We didn’t have to worry about lepo (dirty) things in water … We only have one Earth, and the military is the worst pollutant of our Earth.”
What To Do About It?
If PFAS contamination is found to be widespread or severe in Hawaii, water purveyors may have to consider water treatment options.
The Honolulu Board of Water Supply already filters much of the water pumped from Central Oahu and the North Shore to address the pesticide legacy of Hawaii’s plantation era, according to Erwin Kawata, BWS’s deputy manager. The rest of the island’s water is not filtered through these granulated activated carbon, or GAC, filters, he said, but that could change.
“If the levels warrant treatment, then yes, that’s something we’re going to have to consider and plan for,” he said.
GAC filters are effective for removing long-chain PFAS like PFOA and PFOS but work less well on new, shorter-chain varieties, according to the EPA.
Other water treatment options include ion exchange, in which resins remove PFAS from water, and reverse osmosis, which passes water through high-pressure membranes. All of these methods would be expensive, and it’s unclear who would pay for them. They also produce their own PFAS-tainted waste products which would have to be dealt with.
Without these treatment systems in place, if the Honolulu Board of Water Supply starts detecting high levels of PFAS in its water, it could require the closure of wells, Kawata said.
But doing so would be an especially tough decision now. The Halawa shaft, once a primary drinking water source for urban Honolulu and southeast Oahu, was shut down in 2021 after fuel from the Navy’s Red Hill storage facility contaminated the aquifer. Residents have been advised to conserve water while new wells are sited and drilled.
Other states have pursued a range of measures, including environmental regulations, testing and public notices.
In advance of the new EPA regulations taking effect, several states have established their own legal limits for certain PFAS. These maximum contaminant limits, or MCLs, are enforced by state agencies. Hawaii has “environmental action levels” for PFAS, but there are no penalties for exceeding them.
Some states have launched fact-finding missions.
Michigan established a program in 2018 requiring municipal wastewater treatment plants to test for PFOS and PFOA to find out if their discharges were polluting lakes, streams and groundwater.
Officials in Maine started looking for PFAS in agriculture and recently found PFAS contamination in dozens of farms licensed to spread sludge that was possibly contaminated.
“People would go to the store and buy fertilizer and not know that that’s essentially what it was,” Corginan said.
Last year, Illinois banned PFAS incineration to prevent PFAS air pollution. Several states, alarmed by the level of PFAS in lake and stream fish, have issued fish consumption advisories. In New Hampshire, insurers are now required to cover PFAS blood testing which might otherwise be cost-prohibitive for patients paying out of pocket.
Independent of government action, individuals can try to reduce their PFAS exposure.
Households can use water filters. Kawata recommends choosing a model endorsed by the National Sanitation Foundation, an independent public health organization.
Individuals can also try to reduce their use of PFAS-based products. For instance, Carignan said she doesn’t wear a lot of makeup, eat popcorn from microwaveable bags or use parchment paper because the water-resistant sheets contain PFAS.
But other exposures are difficult to avoid when PFAS are so pervasive.
“You might have stain-resistant carpeting in your workplace, and how can you get away from that?” she said. “It’s one of those things that has to be addressed on all fronts. There is no one solution.”
Corignan encouraged residents to ask their water suppliers if they test for PFAS, and if they do, to look at the results. The PFAS Exchange, an online resource center run by PFAS researchers, has a tool for deciphering the results of PFAS testing.
Residents can also order their own water tests through labs like Eurofins, Carignan said, although it costs several hundred dollars. Once the EPA finalizes its regulations, utilities will be required to test for PFAS, so household testing may not be needed, she said.
The issue of PFAS can be overwhelming, but Kawata said it’s important to tackle it head-on.
“Knowing is better than not knowing,” Kawata said. “The idea is to try to know it when it’s first starting so it gives you options on next steps.”
Civil Beat’s community health coverage is supported by the Atherton Family Foundation, Swayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, the Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.