Widespread low levels of man-made chemicals used to produce nonstick cookware and breathable waterproof clothing have been detected in Washington water and fish, according to a Department of Ecology study released Tuesday.
Ecology officials said the results confirm what they suspected about perfluorinated compounds, known as PFCs, and will help the state come up with a plan to reduce the toxic, persistent chemicals and their risk to residents.
"We don't have manufacturers of these chemicals in Washington, yet the Washington environment sees them anyway," said Carol Kraege, who is leading the agency's Toxics Reduction Initiative.
"Where is it coming from? Why is it here?" she said, adding the next step will be to determine the sources of PFCs and develop an action plan that could lead to future restrictions.
PFCs are toxic, long-lasting and can build up in the food chain. They have unique chemical properties that make them useful for numerous industrial and consumer applications such as stain- and water-repellant coatings.
Until this study, there was little data about PFCs in Washington or the Western states, said study co-author Chad Furl, an Ecology scientist.
The effort is part of a larger initiative to reduce the amount of toxic threats in Washington.
The state has already passed among the nation's toughest laws for PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, flame retardants used in upholstered furniture and home electronics.
State scientists found low levels of PFCs in water surface samples in lakes and rivers across Washington, even pristine areas, as well as in fish tissues and discharges from municipal wastewater treatment plants.
However, they found elevated levels of PFCs in osprey eggs taken from nests along the lower Columbia River. Ospreys eat fish and are a top predator, and scientists wanted to see whether PFCs were accumulating in fish or fish-eating birds, Furl said.
A type of PFC, perfluorooctane sulfonate, was detected in osprey eggs at concentrations higher than surface waters and fish, showing how powerful PFCs can build up in the food chain, he said.
The human health risks of PFCs are unclear, but the Environmental Protection Agency has found that one type of PFC, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, causes developmental and other adverse effects in laboratory animals.
PFCs also have been detected in underground water supplies, polar ice caps, wildlife and people, state officials said.