EPA Action Gives Grassroots Momentum to Cut Toxic ‘Eternal Chemicals’ | Health News from the Healthiest Communities
ROME, Ga. — Intake pumps that once drew 6 million gallons of water a day from the Oostanaula River are now mostly dormant in this northwest Georgia city.
Local officials say years of contamination miles upriver have sent toxic perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, into Rome’s water supply, making it potentially dangerous for the estimated 37,000 city residents. A change in the Oostanaula’s water source and additional treatment reduced the traces of chemicals passing through residents’ faucets, but it did not eliminate PFAS from the community’s water supply.
Test results that revealed contamination in Rome have echoed in communities across the country as researchers and regulators grapple with concerns about the implications of consuming the ubiquitous chemicals. Now the Environmental Protection Agency is accelerating the debate. In June, the EPA issued new drinking water advisories for PFAS that lower the level regulators consider safe for four chemicals in the family, including two of the most common, PFOA and PFOS.
EPA health advisories are not legally enforceable. But the agency is expected this year to propose new limits on PFAS in public water systems. If these drinking water regulations reflect the latest advice from the EPA, water system operators nationwide will need to take action to address the presence of these chemicals.
“It’s a pretty important message,” said Dr. Philippe Grandjean, a PFAS expert and adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “This stuff is everywhere.”
The Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization that tracks PFAS, said it has recorded more than 2,800 sites in the United States contaminated with PFAS. Public records show the chemicals appeared in water samples taken from household water wells, churches, schools, military bases, nursing homes and municipal water supplies in small towns like Rome and big cities like Chicago.
They are also present in the blood of almost all Americans, according to studies. And some PFAS compounds bioaccumulate, meaning the chemical concentrations are not readily eliminated in the body and instead increase over time as people consume trace amounts of them each day.
In July, a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine said PFAS testing should be offered to people who have likely been exposed to high levels in the course of their work or those who live in areas where PFAS contamination is known. Grandjean, who helped review the report for the National Academies, said the committee concluded that “people have a right to know their level of exposure and to be offered appropriate medical follow-up.” He said it was “very important and, in my opinion, necessary”.
The EPA advisories and National Academies report follow ongoing grassroots efforts to limit PFAS chemicals, which have been used in consumer products for decades. Since their invention in the 1940s, the compounds – known by the nickname “eternal chemicals” because they don’t break down quickly – have been widely applied to household and industrial products, including carpets, rainwear and kitchen utensils. non-stick cooking.
The presence of PFAS in fire-fighting foam, food packaging and even dental floss poses an ongoing challenge. And efforts to reduce PFAS resemble the often frustrating decades-long campaign to eliminate another environmental hazard – lead – from homes, soil and water.
“There has been a dramatic increase in advocacy and public awareness of PFAS,” said Alissa Cordner, chemical expert and professor of environmental sociology at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington.
In their report, National Academies researchers said they found links between PFAS exposure and four health problems: decreased immune response, elevated cholesterol, decreased infant and fetal growth, and increased risk of kidney cancer. The report also found a possible association between the chemicals and breast cancer, changes in liver enzymes, an increased risk of testicular cancer and thyroid disease.
And EPA officials said the agency’s latest advice is based on new scientific data and takes into account indications “that certain adverse health effects may occur with concentrations of PFOA or PFOS in water close to zero”.
However, most states do not regulate PFAS.
That makes the EPA’s advisories important, said Jamie DeWitt, professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University. “The message from the EPA is that if these PFAS can be detected in drinking water, they pose health risks,” she said.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group, pushed back against the advisories and recently asked a federal court to overturn them, saying the agency’s process was “scientifically flawed and procedurally inappropriate” and set “incredibly low standards for PFOA and PFOS in alcohol consumption”. water.” In a June statement, the council said PFAS have important uses, including in renewable energy efforts and medical supplies.
A producer of PFAS, 3M, said in a statement that the company “has acted responsibly with respect to products containing PFAS and will vigorously defend its record of environmental stewardship.”
Compound development took off with initial successes in Teflon and later in Scotchgard. There are currently 12,000 variants, but only about 150 are being studied by scientists and government agencies, DeWitt said.
American manufacturers have voluntarily eliminated PFOS and PFOA, the two most common products, but they are still found in drinking water. The city of Rome is among 10 communities in North Georgia where PFOS or PFOA have been found in the drinking water supply at levels higher than those reported by EPA advisories, the agency said. state environmental regulations.
Six years ago, Rome officials were forced to switch the city’s water supply from the Oostanaula to the nearby Etowah River, a brownish tributary that merges with the Oostanaula near a bridge in the downtown. Years of chemical contamination in the Oostanaula, which Rome officials say begins dozens of miles upstream at Dalton, has made the water potentially dangerous. They said that in Dalton, the epicenter of carpet manufacturing in the United States, industrial waste containing PFAS seeped into the Conasauga River, which empties into the Oostanaula.
Rome officials plan to build a $100 million reverse osmosis filter system to remove chemicals from the city’s water supply. Taxpayers will foot the bill, though a city lawsuit against carpet makers and their chemical suppliers seeks to recoup those costs. A separate lawsuit filed by a Rome resident and a taxpayer makes similar charges against the upstream companies. Defendants in the two Rome-based lawsuits have denied the allegations.
The EPA announced $1 billion in grants so states can address PFAS and other contaminants in drinking water. But changes to public water systems nationwide will likely exceed that allocation quickly.
Downstream from Rome, officials in the towns of Center and Gadsden, Alabama, reported high levels of PFAS in the Coosa River and filed lawsuits against carpet makers. The Gadsden trial is expected to go to trial in October.
Chemicals have drawn a wave of litigation over the past two decades. A Bloomberg Law analysis found more than 6,400 PFAS-related lawsuits filed in federal court between July 2005 and March 2022.
Substantial payments followed. DuPont and Chemours, which had made PFAS products for decades, settled more than 3,500 lawsuits in 2017 for more than $670 million. Both companies have denied any wrongdoing. And 3M settled a lawsuit from the state of Minnesota for $850 million. The same company settled a lawsuit in the Decatur, Alabama area for $98 million.
The EPA should now cast a wider net to consider the wide variety of chemicals, Cordner said. “The persistence of PFAS means we’re going to deal with it for a long time,” she said. “Because of their quantity, we have to treat PFAS as a class. We cannot proceed chemical by chemical.
EPA spokesman Tim Carroll said in an email to KHN that the agency is working to divide the large class of PFAS into smaller categories based on similarities such as chemical structure, physical and chemical properties and toxicological properties. This work, he said, would “accelerate the effectiveness of regulations, enforcement measures, and the tools and technologies needed to remove PFAS from air, land, and water.”
Meanwhile, some companies and the military have decided to stop using the chemicals.
The Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental advocacy group, has compiled a list of PFAS-free products, including clothing and rainwear, footwear, baby products, cosmetics and dental floss.
Two years ago, Home Depot and Lowe’s said they would not sell rugs or carpets containing PFAS. This year, textile manufacturer Milliken said it would eliminate all PFAS from its facilities by the end of 2022.
A handful of flooring companies have followed suit. Dalton-based Shaw Industries, a defendant in the Rome lawsuits, said it has stopped using PFAS in floor and stain treatments for residential and commercial carpet products.
The Coosa River Basin Initiative, a Rome-based environmental advocacy organization, is following the PFAS issue closely. Its executive director, Jesse Demonbreun-Chapman, said the EPA acted “lightning fast” on PFAS, compared to the agency’s other actions.
But unless eventual regulations are sweeping and cleanups are extended, he said, “we the people will be guinea pigs for PFAS-related health issues.”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues. Along with policy analysis and polls, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed non-profit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.