Lab testing industry adjusts to drastically low PFAS advisories
Merit Laboratories tests for most environmental contaminants like heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs and so on.
But the East Lansing lab is expanding its capacity to test for PFAS, a group of chemicals that are dangerous to human health.
Maya Murshak is the technical director of Merit Labs. On a tour of the lab, she showed me an empty room. In the next couple of months, this room will be strictly for testing PFAS.
"We have two instruments that are doing PFAS, and we are revving up to do four and increase our capacity to eight because we think it’s going to keep going,” Murshak said.
Murshak said the decision to expand was an expensive one — a single PFAS-testing machine costs $600,000 dollars, but she said the investment is worth it.
In light of new science, growing public awareness, and tightening standards, PFAS aren’t going away. But as what are considered safe levels of PFAS continue to decrease, labs might not be able to keep up and detect it.
Most labs can detect down to 1 part per trillion or PPT — going any lower will read as a non-detect.
But the EPA’s new drinking water advisories for two PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS, go down past 1 part per trillion, into the gray area of quadrillions.
For reference, 1 part per trillion is relative to a teardrop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. 1 part per quadrillion is a teardrop in a thousand swimming pools.
Murshak said she’s been running blank samples to test the limits of how low the machines can go. She said there are still concerns about how confidentlylabs can report the presence of PFAS at these extremely low levels.
Since PFAS are everywhere, including in some lab equipment, it might be difficult to isolate it to a specific source, assuming labs can even detect the low levels in the first place.
“The catch-22 is, yeah we can see down to 30-40 PPQ, but is it actually in the sample or in the surroundings that contribute to the sample?” Murshak said.
Linda Lee is an environmental chemistry professor at Purdue. She’s part of the research team studying PFAS contamination at Clark’s Marsh in Oscoda.
When hearing the new advisories, Lee questioned whether the decision-makers had ever been in a lab before. She said the EPA’s advisories are not manageable for labs. She said another implication of the recommendations is that agencies and communities look to advisories for guidance.
“They wanted guidance, so they knew how to manage and move forward,” Lee said. “But that kind of guidance can probably shut down so many things, I just can't even imagine.”
Lee said the advisories might make people question the safety of their drinking water, when fear isn’t warranted.
“I would want people to realize that they've been living with PFAS in their space for a really long time, and everybody's not sick from it,” she said. People that have really been impacted have been exposed to very high levels, like several orders of magnitude higher than these guidance levels.”
In a webinar, explaining the advisories, the EPA said the recommendations are based on “lifetime risk assessments.” The assessments account for all the ways people can be exposed to PFAS throughout their entire life and set a “highly protective limit” for what’s considered safe.
The advisories are meant to be cautionary — and not regulatory. The EPA is still working to develop enforceable standards on PFAS in drinking water.
EPA officials said expanding the ability of lab testing is a research priority, but future standards will account for lab feasibility.
For people in the contaminant testing field like Murshak, the EPA’s advisories were a surprise and opened a lot of questions in her lab. Murshak said she has a lot of faith in the environmental industry to develop new sampling and testing methods.
It might just take labs some more testing of their own capabilities before they turn to PFAS.
This story is part two of WCMU's series on Demystifying PFAS, where we explore what a future with forever chemicals may look like.