Topic of Cancer: How PFAS threaten our water

By Dan Ross | Capital & Main | December 10, 2019

Read the full article by Dan Ross (Capital & Main)

"They’re a family of chemicals famous enough to have a Hollywood movie made about them – starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, no less. They are also known to cause cancer, thyroid problems and other serious health issues. And worryingly for environmental justice advocates and disadvantaged communities, growing data highlighting the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) problem nationally and in California suggest that the impact may be hardest felt by those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

“It makes sense that there is going to be a tremendous burden in these communities from these chemicals,” says Andria Ventura, toxics program manager for Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy nonprofit. A reason, says Ventura, is how typical PFAS hotspots—like fence-line neighborhoods abutting manufacturing facilities, military bases and airports—are more usually found in communities that aren’t just economically disadvantaged, they’re already under assault by various sources of air, water and other toxic pollution.

What’s more, while the persistent and mobile nature of PFAS chemicals means that no neighborhood is safe from contamination, smaller water systems—particularly those serving disadvantaged communities—face an uphill task in tackling the problem due to the higher probability of aging infrastructure and limited resources, as compared to larger utilities. “We have to assume the state as a whole is impacted,” says Ventura. “It’s just that larger cities and urban centers are going to have far more ability to address these problems.”

Found in a wide array of everyday items, from non-stick cookware to food packaging, and from carpets to clothing, PFAS have saturated the marketplace and the environment, some for many decades. This alarms experts, partly because of the sheer volume of different PFAS compounds—current estimates put the number at more than 4,700—and partly because of the piecemeal way the federal government is tackling the problem.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which didn’t begin phasing out the two most common such chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, until the early aughts— and which still hasn’t succeeded entirely in eliminating them— set a non-enforceable health advisory safety level in 2016 of a combined 70 parts per trillion (ppt). However, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—a national nonprofit watchdog that has created an interactive national PFAS contamination maphas proposed a health-based standard for combined PFAScontamination in drinking water of 1 ppt. “Even at very low levels, exposure to PFAS can harm the immune system or reproductive development,” says Tasha Stoiber, a senior EWG scientist.

When asked about the EWG’s 1 ppt standard, Blair Robertson, a spokesperson for the California State Water Resources Control Board, wrote that the agency is “confident” in the non-mandatory response levels (70 ppt of combined PFOA and PFOS) and notification levels (5.1 ppt for PFOA and 6.5 ppt for PFOS) established by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, “and will let the EWG report, which is based on preliminary data that had not been vetted, speak for itself.” Nevertheless, California is currently working on revising the response level downward."