America's Next Water Contamination Crisis May Already Be Here
The family of chemicals called PFAS have been used in everything from carpeting to fast food wrappers. They also may have contaminated America's water.
Illustration by Nathan Rickard
City Commissioner Robert Heasley was on a golf course two hours away from home when he got the news: Michigan officials, in a study of the state's drinking water, had the results for his city’s supply. His constituents, tucked away in the tiny town of Parchment, were about to have a hell of a month.
The contaminant: per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a sprawling chemical family with thousands of members. Two such chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, both linked to lower vaccine effectiveness, altered fetal development, and some adult cancers, were both present in city well-water and soaring past federally advised levels.
“I had about 30 minutes of pretty raw panic, because I could see the implications,” Heasley said in August. And not just for his own city, but for its neighbors, too.
The news came on July 26. Three days later, Michigan Lieutenant Governor Brian Calley declared a local state of emergency. Parchment soon began drinking bottled water, handed out by smiling volunteers at the local high school. It kept the townspeople from consuming more PFAS, but it didn’t cure their anxieties. Some wondered how long they’d been drinking contaminants. Others wondered at stories of their neighbors’ illnesses.
“Everybody’s like, ‘Oh, they passed from cancer, they have cancer, they battled cancer,’” said Parchment-area resident Brad Dunn, who draws water from a private well nearby. As he spoke, the early August sun was shining on a water pickup line at Parchment High School, where volunteers loaded bottles into passing cars. “And it’s like—holy cow, I didn’t have that in Grand Rapids.”
For many Americans, the phrase “water crisis” conjures thoughts of lead contamination in Flint, just a few hours’ drive northeast of Parchment. But increasingly, it’s also making them think of the chemicals countless drank—or may still be drinking—every day. From military bases to corporate waste sites, and in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Colorado and beyond, new awareness of PFAS pollution and its long-term effects has left Americans horrified at the unusually durable “forever chemicals” they’ve been ingesting for years.
PFAS are characterized by fluorine-carbon bonds, among other traits, which makes those chemicals especially useful, giving them traits including outstanding durability, heat resistance, and water- and oil-repellency. They’ve been used in carpet, apparel, fast food wrapping, non-stick substances, firefighting foam, and more. They are throughout the United States and, after decades of production, have become nearly ubiquitous in Americans’ bodies.
But like many chemical marvels of the last 75 years, widespread use and disposal of PFAS appears to have preceded caution, and is now leaving a trail of contamination and high-profile settlements in its wake. In one such case from last year, DuPont and Chemours Co. reached a $671 million settlement for 3,550 personal injury claims linked to perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. Neither company admitted wrongdoing.
“In my view, this should be viewed as a national public health threat and crisis, and should be addressed that way,” Robert Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a phone interview.
Around the country, discoveries of the contamination are backing up Bilott’s claim. In Michigan alone, MLive reports, PFAS have been detected—in streamwater, groundwater, coming out of the tap. and elsewhere—at more than two dozen sites, from the former Wurtsmith Air Force Base to Ann Arbor’s water supply to the groundwater near a former General Motors plant in Lansing. It’s that catalogue, which continues to grow, that spurred the statewide testing that detected high PFAS levels in Parchment. Leaders there fear there’s more to come.
“I believe the water system that we’ve got in front of us amounts to the tip of an iceberg, and it’s a really big iceberg,” Heasley said at an August city commission meeting. Though Parchment was able to link its system to neighboring Kalamazoo’s water supply, he’s worried the next city won’t be so lucky. “The next community is not going to be (several thousand) people… and they’re not going to be able to cross the street and hook up.”
It’s difficult to say how many communities have been affected by PFAS, but most observers agree the contamination is widespread. The Environmental Working Group, a DC-based nonprofit, argued in May that “more than 1,500 drinking water systems, serving up to 110 million Americans, may be contaminated” with some level of the chemicals. David Andrews, a senior scientist with the organization, said virtually every American has PFAS in their blood.
There is an argument, growing louder all the time, that tighter regulations would mean a safer public. Though the Environmental Protection Agency set non-enforceable drinking water “health advisory levels” in 2016 for two of the most notorious chemicals (PFOA and its cousin PFOS) at 70 parts per trillion, there’s widespread criticism that lower concentrations of these chemicals can be harmful as well.
In an email, an EPA spokesperson detailed the agency’s years-long history grappling with PFAS. It is moving toward a “maximum contaminant level” for the two most notorious types of PFAS, and listing them as “hazardous substances," another important legal standard. Taken together, these moves would mean significantly stronger, enforceable government regulation. Among other efforts, the EPA building plans to manage PFAS contamination, and has worked with manufacturers to limit PFOA proliferation since 2006.
But despite the EPA’s continued work toward stronger regulation, critics like Andrews believe it’s moving far too slowly. “What comes across is that they’re working on this, they’re working toward this goal,” he said, but argued that the EPA’s regulatory track record in recent decades indicates it lacks the proper urgency and resolve. “There’s really no indication that they can make it to that end-goal.”
The EPA has also made stops around the country this summer tour to hear about experiences on the ground. The spokesperson said the EPA is “taking active steps (to) provide states, tribes, and communities with the tools they need to effectively address PFAS.” But press coverage of many of these meetings has revealed deep-seated frustration among the public, and there’s lingering disappointment that tour didn’t be come to Michigan.
“The philosophy of this administration is that the government should just stand back and let industry have its way and focus on profitability without any focus on the health consequences,” said Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint and knows all too what what a water crisis looks like.
Politico reported in May that the EPA and the White House sought to prevent the release of a government study on some PFAS chemicals’ effects, citing emails in which one official called the study a “public relations nightmare.” Days later, some press corps members were barred from EPA headquarters during summit on its PFAS response. It drew widespread attention at the time, though as an attack on press freedoms—not as a water quality issue.
“In fairness to all concerned, our understanding of how dangerous PFAS is is evolving, but it’s evolving in a direction that should be frightening to everyone,” said Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint and who knows all too well what a water crisis looks like. “This is one of those examples of why we have an (EPA) and why it should do the job it’s been charged with—rather than what we’ve seen so far, where they essentially look the other way every time they have a chance to protect the public health.”
Much of the ink spilled on PFAS contamination has centered on the two chemicals with a federal advisory limit. But there are thousands of PFAS chemicals, and there are still open questions over how many, at what concentrations, need government attention.
“Should we regulate these chemicals as an entire class? Should we regulate individual compounds, which seems unmanageable and impossible?” wondered Detlef Knappe, a professor of civil, construction, and environmental engineering at North Carolina State University.
He pointed out that there are political considerations to regulation, too: “Whenever a man-made chemical is regulated… (corporations) may be liable for paying for the treatment that needs to be installed at impacted water treatment plants. There’s an official recognition that this chemical has adverse health effects, and companies are generally not very keen on admitting that.”
Minnesotans know all about it; the state sued the 3M corporation in 2010 over PFAS water contamination, and by late 2017, the state alleged that the corporation had knowingly risked the health of Minnesotans, seeking a $5 billion sum in environmental and health damages. Despite disagreement over the actual effects of the chemicals, 3M settled the suit earlier this year for $850 million for “water quality programs in the east metro (area),” the Pioneer Press reported.
In Parchment, the emergency has subsided. Thanks to the connection between the town and Kalamazoo’s system, local residents were advised they can flush their taps and begin drinking water again. In September, Mayor Robert Britigan said the crisis has moved from “response” to “recovery.” An apparent culprit for the source of the contamination is a landfill used by the now-shuttered paper mill that gave the city its name.
There’s increasing pressure from Congress to act on the issue. A bill introduced by Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow would authorize $45 million to boost federal detection methods and water testing; another would help jump start federal cleanup help.
Congressman Fred Upton, a Republican who represents Parchment, issued a joint statement with Kildee demanding stronger national standards for PFAS in drinking water. Upton’s office did not make the congressman available for comment.
Right now, there’s momentum about the issue. But it remains to be seen just how far regulation will go—and Bilott, the lawyer who has been fighting this kind of contamination for nearly two decades, knows all too well how many years it can take to wrangle the progress.
“It’s not as if these are new, emerging chemicals,” he said. “They’ve been out there and exposed for decades. It’s the public’s awareness only that’s emerging at this point.”
Brad Dunn, who was shocked at stories of his neighbors’ cancer, was still drinking bottled water in mid-September. His private well is far enough away from Parchment that authorities advised him he can drink from it—but he’s still worried about what comes out of his tap.
“I’m more concerned about my family more than anything. If it was just me living here, I would deal with it and whatever,” he said. “But when you’ve got three other people you’re supposed to look out for—how do you protect them against a drinking water supply?”
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