The EPA doesn't regulate many of the potentially harmful chemicals found in our drinking water, but now a different federal agency is hunting for some of them in groundwater near military bases. Some state governors are demanding immediate action at the same time some researchers insist that any regulations EPA would set wouldn't be stringent enough. H2O Radio reports on the latest developments.
Jamie Sudler: People are increasingly talking about water because of what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, with lead contamination. But, last week attention was focused on another issue that could be as perniciousand even more pervasiveperfluorinated chemicals or PFCs.
Frani Halperin: PFCs have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease and certain birth defects.
Jamie Sudler: According to the Associated Press, the Department of Defense is in the process of testing more than 660 sites around the country to determine if these compounds have contaminated our water.
Frani Halperin: The chemicals were used in fire fighting foams on military bases to respond to airplane crashes. But it wasn’t like lots of jets were crashing necessitating the chemical’s use.
Jennifer Field: If you live near military sites a lot of training went on and equipment testing because these were groups that had to be ready to respond to an emergency and that’s true at municipal airports as well.
Frani Halperin: That’s Jennifer Field, an environmental chemist at Oregon State University who studies these issues.
Jennifer Field: If there’s a fire, you want folks to show up knowing what to do and how to use their equipment. That kind of routine testing historically is probably the source of some of the higher levels that we think of as being associated with military sites.
Jamie Sudler: The military stopped actively using fire fighting foams containing PFCs for training purposes in the late 1990’s but still uses them on actual fires and has stockpiles of it. And the use of PFCs at municipal and other airports has not been surveyed as far as we can tell.
Frani Halperin: But PFCs are not just used in fire fighting. They’re found in a range of consumer products from carpets, to cosmetics, to clothing and even food packaging like microwave popcorn bags and pizza boxes.
Jamie Sudler: The chemicals were first developed by the 3M Corporation in 1951 and were used for decades by companies like DuPont to make non-stick, waterproof and stain-resistant products. Consumers would know these goods by their trade names like Scotchgard®, Teflon™, Gore-Tex®, and Stainmaster®.
Frani Halperin: Before these compounds were developed, no one had them in their blood. Now, because all of us are surrounded by them on a daily basis—inhaling them, swallowing them—it’s estimated that nearly 99 percent of us have at least trace amounts in our bodies.
Jamie Sudler: And they’re even found in fish and animals because they don’t biodegrade. As we continue to use them and they accumulate in the environment and their concentrations can only build up.
Frani Halperin: The EPA doesn't regulate PFCs but has two of themPFOA and PFOSon a list of "emerging contaminants" that could pose a health threat. In 2009 the agency issued Provisional Health Advisory Values, but they don’t restrict the chemical’s use. It’s possible that the EPA will establish an MCL, or maximum contaminant level, for the chemicals later this year.
Jamie Sudler: The urgency in establishing that maximum level was emphasized in a letter sent last Friday to the EPA by the governors of New York, Vermont and New Hampshire stating that the problem is not local, not regional, but rather nationwide.
Frani Halperin: The governors are calling for the EPA to implement federal guidelines and a consistent, science-based approach to this problem after high amounts of the compounds were found in drinking water in Hoosick Falls, New York, and Bennington, Vermont. Those contaminations were linked to plastics manufacturing in the area.
Jamie Sudler: Even if EPA does establish federal guidelines, some think the values they would set would be too weak. The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit watchdog organization, said the standard for PFOA in drinking water is not nearly stringent enough. They produced a report that builds on an earlier study by researchers from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts that also found thresholds weren’t adequate.
Frani Halperin: The problem with PFCs isn’t confined to the U.S. An agency within the World Health Organization classified PFOA as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
Jamie Sudler: And about 200 prominent scientists worldwide signed the 2015 Madrid Statement, calling on the international community to limit the production and use of PFCs, noting a “growing body of evidence” linking the chemicals to adverse health effects. But even if the EPA acts to ban PFCs, it will still be a problem. Again Jennifer Field:
Jennifer Field: There’s an awareness that you can limit things in one country but you might get a supply from another country. The United States is not the only country that uses these materials. So we have other manufacturers around the world. China is a significant one as well as remaining manufacturing in the U.S., so it’s a complicated marketplace that adds to the complexity.
Frani Halperin: The good news is that some companies are starting to respond. Brands that produce outdoor clothing, like Puma and Adidas, have already adopted elimination targets. Others like IKEA, Levi Strauss, and Crate and Barrel have all said they will phase out the chemicals in their supply chain and from products that they sell.