Safe drinking water is a bipartisan issue. Environmental concerns in the news affect us all because we share the same address: Anytown, America. There should be nothing political about safe drinking water. Yet, with local, state and federal agencies regulating something as important as drinking water, environmental issues become more complicated. And when the problems get more complicated, people can feel more helpless, angry, and hopeless.
Dangerous Chemicals Known as PFAS
The people of Parchment, Michigan are feeling helpless and now they’re feeling angry because their children’s lives are in danger. They want something done about the unsafe drinking water in their community. Parchment is a small town of less than 2,000 people in Kalamazoo County, Michigan.
Recently, the Washington Post featured a story on Parchment’s residents and what they’ve been dealing with for years: exposure through drinking water to compounds known as “polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances” (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals that includes also includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and others.
PFAS have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries in the U.S. and around the world since the 1940’s. PFOA and PFOS are very persistent in the environment and in the human body (they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time), according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects including reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects. PFOA and PFOS have been shown to cause tumors in animals.
Consistent findings of the adverse effects of these chemicals show:
- Low infant birth weights
- Compromised immune system
- Cancer (for PFOA)
- Thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS)
PFAS have been used in a number of consumer products including non-stick cookware, water-repellent fabrics, de-greasing products like stain removers, grease-resistant paper products, polishes, waxes, paints, and cleaning products. PFAS can also be found in drinking water and in humans, animals, and fish where they are able to build up over time. The chemicals are also present in the foam used to fight fires.
Parchment, Michigan was home, for decades, to a now-closed paper mill, and recent tests found PFAS levels in the Parchment water system in excess of 1,500 parts per trillion, which is over 20 times the EPA’s recommended lifetime exposure limit of 70 parts per trillion.
To say residents of Parchment, Michigan are worried is an understatement. But Parchment’s problem is not confined to those living in the “Great Lakes State.” Researchers at Harvard University say public drinking-water supplies serving over 6 million Americans have shown the dangerous chemicals at or above the EPA’s threshold. The EPA level is only an agency guideline because the federal government does not regulate PFAS.
At the end of November, the head of the EPA vowed that the agency would soon unveil a “national strategy” to address the contaminated water problem in Michigan and elsewhere. At this time, Michigan is only one of a few states where officials are working on determining the extent of the contamination from PFAS.
Something more needs to be done to protect families who have sick children due to contaminated drinking water. While unsafe drinking water is often a topic of concern at various agency meetings, nothing much seems to ever be done.
Senator Thomas Carper (D-Delaware) asked the EPA’s director of groundwater and drinking water about when it would release its plans to regulate the chemicals and finalize a drinking-water standard, Peter Grevatt said officials were continuing to visit communities and develop a long-term “management plan.” Grevatt said it would take a “number of years” to put enforceable regulations in place if it was “determined that the contaminants were surfacing in enough water systems to be considered a nationwide health concern.”
There’s really no “if” about it. Contaminants have surfaced in water systems throughout the US.
People in Parchment and in other small towns across the country are wondering how many of their kids have to get sick before unsafe drinking water is considered a “nationwide health concern.”