Here’s a story about some toxic chemicals that have been used for decades, contaminating drinking water in Michigan and across the nation. Health impacts, including developmental delays in children, are well known, but government agencies have concealed the dangers.
If you followed the drinking water crisis in Flint, this story will certainly ring a bell. This time, though, the toxin in question is not lead, but a group of chemicals known as “PFAS,” which stands for poly- and perfluorinated alkyl substances.
PFAS are plentiful in our homes and workplaces; they are used to make nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting, food packaging, fire retardants and more. Unfortunately, they are equally ubiquitous in the environment, with 172 known PFAS contamination sites in 40 states. According to the Environmental Working Group, more than 1,500 drinking water systems, serving up to 110 million Americans, may be contaminated with PFAS.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration tried to stop publication of a taxpayer-funded study showing that PFAS are much more toxic than previously thought. The study, from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was eventually released. It documents serious health risks like developmental and behavioral problems in children, thyroid disease, elevated cholesterol, higher cancer risks, and male reproductive abnormalities — including lower sperm counts.
Why would the administration want to block this study? Perhaps because it shows that current federal health guidelines are far too weak to protect our health. ATSDR recommends exposure limits that are 10 times lower than what the EPA now says is safe. Yet, rather than showing concern about a potential public health crisis, one administration official worried that the report would cause a “public relations nightmare.” Just like Flint.
In another echo of the lead crisis, Michigan again leads the nation with the highest number of PFAS-contaminated sites — more than 11,300, according to its state Department of Environmental Quality. This same agency was alerted to the PFAS problem by a staff report in August of 2012, yet that information stayed under cover until 2018.
And Michigan, like many other states, continues to use the EPA’s weak guidelines for PFAS exposure, rather than the more stringent limit recommended by ATSDR. A handful of states — including California, Vermont and New Jersey — have established stricter standards. But why should kids in Kalamazoo be exposed to more PFAS than kids in Sacramento? We need a national standard for PFAS in drinking water, not a piecemeal approach.
Trump’s EPA is rolling back environmental protections, so it is not likely to act on PFAS. Congress must act to require enforceable national standards for these chemicals, based on the best available science. Congress must also provide funding and assistance to states for cleanup. Until federal standards are in place, protections at the state level are needed, either through legislative action or agency rulemaking.
The Wisconsin State Journal, the state’s second-largest daily newspaper, ran a front-page story on the threat posed by PFAS and the lack of regulatory response. State officials there have been asked to issue an immediate health advisory and quickly set an enforceable standard for PFAS compounds.
We know what will happen if our leaders fail to act. The people of Flint were poisoned because state and federal governments took too long to acknowledge and address the problem.
Now the same story is playing out with PFAS, as health warnings are ignored or concealed. But, if our leaders commit to address the PFAS crisis now, this story can have a much happier ending.
Jill Ryan is executive director of Freshwater Future, a nonprofit group that works to safeguard the waters of the Great Lakes region. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, affiliated with The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.