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President Joe Biden’s plan for big infrastructure spending in the U.S has focused attention on the poor condition of the country’s roads, bridges, broadband networks, railroads and water systems.
The United States ranked 13th in the world for the quality of our infrastructure in 2019. That’s a big problem for our economy, and the health of Americans.
The infrastructure debate should draw attention to a problem that is literally seeping into our ground and water. That is per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS. The contaminants, which are used as a non-stick coating, to make fabrics stain resistant and water repellant, and as a fire-fighting foam among many other uses, has been found in nearly every American who has been tested for it.
Scientists estimate that 200 million Americans have drinking water contaminated by some type of the chemical, according to Scientific American.
These chemicals are associated with higher risks for asthma, liver damage, thyroid disease, preeclampsia, high cholesterol and decreased fertility, according to an assessment by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Because these chemicals are long lasting and easily move through the ground, water and air, PFAS contamination is widespread.
Locating and cleaning up PFAS contamination should be a priority in any federal infrastructure legislation — or sooner.
Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins, and a small group of colleagues, have asked the Biden administration to allow states to use funds from the already-passed American Rescue Plan to address PFAS contamination. This makes sense.
“Around the country, there is a critical need for resources to better determine, assess, and mitigate PFAS contamination, as well as support those with contaminated lands and/or water,” the senators, led by King, wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen this week. “As the Department of Treasury establishes rules and guidance for allocating American Rescue Plan (ARP) state, tribal, and local fiscal recovery funds, we request that those funds allocated for making ‘necessary investments in water, sewer, or broadband infrastructure’ be eligible for state, tribal, and local governments to use in their PFAS remediation plans.”
The senators noted that recent research found that people with elevated levels of PFAS in their blood were at risk for more severe cases of COVID-19.
Their request comes after Gov. Janet Mills asked for dedicated federal funding to assess and mitigate PFAS contamination in Maine.
“Our agencies are currently hard at work responding to the emerging threat of PFAS. However, with an infusion of federal funds, Maine could more broadly and aggressively undertake these critically needed actions,” Mills wrote in a letter to the state’s congressional delegation last month.
The governor also called for additional federal action including urging Congress to add PFAS to the hazardous substance list under the authority of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which could speed up clean-up by treating places contaminated with PFAS like other Superfund sites, contaminated places identified for cleanup by the EPA. Mills also urged that the EPA quickly establish a maximum contaminant level for PFAS in drinking water to improve public safety.
Mills, who soon after taking office created a task force to examine how the state can best reduce the risks from PFAS contamination, also called for more research into the impacts of PFAS on farms to ensure the safety of our food supply and for more assistance to farmers impacted by PFAS contamination.
Many Mainers first learned about PFAS when they read or heard about Stoneridge Farm. Milk at the Arundel farm was found to contain high levels of PFAS. The dairy farm has been “ruined,” owner Fred Stone has said, because it is unable to sell its milk due to the PFAS contamination.
Stone spread mill waste and sewer sludge on his fields for 15 years. Farmers were encouraged to use the sludge as fertilizer because it reduced disposal costs and prevented the sludge from going to landfills. The sludge contained PFAS and state records indicate sludge was spread at hundreds of sites statewide.
Identifying and cleaning up PFAS contamination will be costly and time consuming. So federal financial assistance, along with new rules to reduce future contamination, are essential to address this public health threat.