By Peter Chawaga
In many ways, the current issue of perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) contamination in drinking water supplies mimics that of the lead contamination crisis that arose in 2015.
Concerns around PFC contamination first made mainstream headlines when residents of Hoosick Falls, NY, were told not to consume their drinking water by the U.S. EPA because it was found to contain high levels of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Since then, communities around the country have found their own drinking water to be unsafe due to PFC contamination, much like the red flags that have been raised around the U.S. following the revelation that drinking water in Flint, MI, was poisoned by outdated lead service lines.
The Federal Response
But while the long-term solution to lead contamination appears to be a fundamental overhaul of the country’s buried infrastructure — an effort that could cost more than $275 billion per some estimates — the issue of PFC contamination seems easier to tackle.
Though prevalent in affected areas, PFC contamination appears to exist only in isolated parts of the country where military or industrial operations leached the chemicals into source water supplies. And unlike lead that comes from drinking water pipelines, PFCs are treatable at drinking water plants before contaminated sources travel to homes.
In a nod to the potential for solving this problem, the EPA recently announced a “cross-agency effort” to address polyfluoralkyl substances (PFAS). The announcement indicated confidence from the EPA that it could identify near-term actions to take in local communities affected by PFCs, coordinate information and tools with local agencies, and increase research efforts toward a solution.
“Protecting public health and ensuring all Americans have safe and clean drinking water is one of EPA’s top priorities,” the agency told Water Online in a statement. “In December 2017, EPA reaffirmed its commitment to supporting states and tribes to address PFAS and is continuing its cross-agency effort to ensure that communities across the country have the tools they need to address these chemicals.”
But it may be unwise for those communities currently dealing with confirmed PFC contamination, or those that suspect it, to wait for federal help. An EPA spokesperson refused to elaborate on what exactly those “cross-agency efforts” would look like. They also declined to comment on what action the agency might take to intensify its drinking water standards for PFCs, which currently remain as unenforceable health advisories for PFAS.
The EPA has established health advisory levels at 70 ppt for both PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS). But many local regulators in places where citizens may be drinking PFCs under this concentration level believe stricter limits are needed.
“PFAS chemicals are dangerous to human health and can cause cancers, birth defects, thyroid and liver disease, and other serious conditions,” said State Representative Winnie Brinks, a democrat from Michigan who has proposed a PFAS limit of 5 ppt in her state, which would be the nation’s lowest. “The state has a constitutional obligation to protect and promote public health in Michigan and that includes making sure that our drinking water is clean.”
Brinks’ efforts are no doubt inspired by the fact that her state is dealing with one of the most high-profile instances of PFC contamination. Last year, a plant in Rockford, MI, caused contamination that led to PFOA and PFOS at 400-times the EPA advised limits in source water. It also appears that the state’s history in Flint is influencing aggressive action against PFCs.
“For years, our state has been in the national headlines due to water contamination in Flint,” Brinks said. “Michigan is home to the world’s largest supply of fresh water. We all need to protect that water supply and the state needs to proactively protect the health of Michiganders. I hope the state has learned from its mistakes in handling the Flint water crisis, and that those lessons are applied effectively to address the harm caused by PFAS contamination.”
But Michigan is not the only state that is taking PFC contamination matters into its own hands. Vermont set its PFOA and PFOS limit at 20 ppt. New Jersey set a PFOA limit of 14 ppt. Minnesota’s limits are about half those of the EPA.
“Michigan isn’t the only, nor is it the first, state that has been working to address PFAS contamination,” said Brinks. “Vermont, New Jersey, and Minnesota have all taken some action to limit PFAS in drinking water. I anticipate that many more states are, or soon will be, taking a look at responses to this contaminant and its impact on health and the environment.”
The Holistic Approach
Though states continue to introduce their own, stricter PFC limits in lieu of federal regulatory action, the EPA appears to be making some strides on its promise of more action.
In Rockford, for example, the agency is helping the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) determine the breadth of PFC contamination caused by shoe manufacturer Wolverine World Wide, which should ultimately help the state react to the problem. It is also supporting efforts in North Carolina, where Teflon manufacturing has resulted in contamination.
“EPA is supporting MDEQ’s response to PFAS contamination of residential wells from Wolverine World Wide, Inc.’s various operations in the Rockford, MI, area,” the EPA spokesperson said. “The agency is also providing technical support to the State of North Carolina and helping them determine the appropriate steps to address the presence of chemical substances in drinking water.”
Though pervasive, PFC contamination could be solvable with an end to their production and tighter limits on their presence in drinking water sources. While those limits will be an additional burden on drinking water treatment operations, they will be the first step in obtaining better treatment technology and taking more action to protect consumers. As the EPA evaluates its need to tighten federal limits and intervenes in individual cases in the meantime, it’s up to consumers to press for change and local leaders to make it.
“While I believe Michigan should take a leadership role in addressing PFAS, I wouldn’t say that other states are lagging behind in this fight,” said Brinks. “While PFAS has been around for decades, the information we have about the serious harm these chemicals cause is relatively new… The sooner we take measures to get these harmful chemicals out of drinking water, the better.”