New concerns over widespread PFAS contamination
The most recent controversy featuring the public water system surrounds a class of chemicals called Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals are used across American homes and factories, chiefly in products that need to be non-sticking or stay held together. This means they’ve been present in things like frying pans, waterproof fabrics, and fire fighting foam since the 1940s.
Because PFAS are constructed specifically to not break down, they pose a legitimate environmental concern. In fact, many groups and media outlets have taken to call them ‘forever chemicals’ for their ability to consistently show up analyses. High concentrations of PFAS are most often near manufacturing facilities, airports, and military installations that use firefighting foams—but the EWG estimates that, at this point, nearly all of us are exposed to these chemicals on a regular basis through everyday household products, soil, as well as water.
How much of an issue is this exposure? Part of the concern is that we still don’t know for sure. This March, an Ohio family was awarded a combined $50 million in a lawsuit against DuPont Co. for a cancer diagnosis allegedly as the result of drinking water contaminated with high levels of PFAS—the first of fifty similar suits in the state. Similarly, reports of Milk from a Maine dairy farm contaminated with high levels of PFAS are the latest in a series of contaminated food and farm products.
Examples like this, along with a growing body of research finding reproductive, developmental, and immunological effects in laboratory animals, have led the EPA to acknowledge that PFAS are widespread and stay in our bodies for long periods. This means that concentrations may increase to the point where people suffer adverse health effects, such as immune system issues, thyroid disruption, or cancers.
Up until a few weeks before this article was written, the US had little regulation on PFAS in drinking water supplies. It is true that more studied variants ‘PFOA’ and ‘PFOS’ are no longer manufactured in the country (though they’re still imported), and the 2016 amendment to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) helped regulate some specific PFAS chemicals. However, the EPA does not set Maximum Contaminant Levels for PFAS as a category, and most states were not mandating PFAS producers or water utility systems to monitor or restrict pollution.
Fortunately, a run of bills are now passing through state legislatures, following the example of New Hampshire, who introduced PFAS regulations in 2018. Democratic nominees have made PFAS a minor campaign issue, and the house has voted to approve deadlines and requirements for PFAS laws. This February, the EPA updated their ‘action plan’ regarding PFAS, which now includes preliminary determinations to regulate PFOA and PFOS, as well as proposals to increase discussion, planning, and oversight for the whole category of PFAS.