By Brady Dennis — January 2, 2019
Harvard University researchers say public drinking-water supplies serving more than 6 million Americans have tested for the chemicals at or above the EPA’s threshold — which many experts argue should be far lower to safeguard public health. The level is only an agency guideline; the federal government does not regulate PFAS.
Both houses of Congress held hearings on the problem last year, and lawmakers introduced bills to compel the government to test for PFAS chemicals nationwide and to respond wherever water and soil polluted by them are found. In late November, the head of the EPA vowed that the agency would soon unveil a “national strategy” to address the situation.
Affected communities are still waiting.
Michigan is one of the few states where officials are trying to determine the extent of PFAS contamination. Health officials undertook statewide tests this year across 1,380 public water supplies and at more than 400 schools that operate their own wells.
“When we look for it, we tend to find it,” said Eden Wells, the state’s chief medical executive. Yet detection raises difficult questions, given the lack of regulation involving PFAS in water and the evolving research on its long-term health effects.
“Many of our responses are outstripping the scientific knowledge we need,” Wells said.
“From a policy perspective, what bothers me about all this is there are industries everywhere that don’t really have to report what they are using,” said Detlef Knappe, a North Carolina State University environmental engineer whose research helped identify another PFAS chemical, known as GenX, in Wilmington’s drinking water supply. “As a class, there are so many compounds . . . and it pops up in the most unexpected places.”
Politico reported in May that the White House and EPA sought to block publication of a federal health study on the nationwide effects of PFAS contamination after one administration aide warned in an email that it could result in a “public relations nightmare.” The study from the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which eventually was released, suggested that the EPA’s existing, nonenforceable standard is inadequate to protect public health and should be much lower.
At a hearing in early fall, Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) pressed the EPA’s director of groundwater and drinking water on when the agency might announce its plans to regulate the chemicals and finalize a drinking-water standard. Peter Grevatt, an agency veteran who recently retired, responded that officials were continuing to visit communities and develop a long-term “management plan.” He acknowledged that it could take the agency a “number of years” to put enforceable regulations in place — if it determined that the contaminants were surfacing in enough water systems to be considered a nationwide health concern.
“We lost a lot of business, primarily because of fear,” said manager Carrie Klinger, whose father started the diner more than two decades ago. During the month-long water crisis, the family bought 80 pounds of bagged ice a day, made soups with bottled water and served canned sodas because the drink machine was hooked to a water line.