The Environmental Protection Agency is expected to propose restrictions on harmful “permanent chemicals” in drinking water after discovering they are dangerous in amounts so small they are undetectable. But experts say removing them will cost billions, a burden that will fall most heavily on small communities with few resources.
Concerned about the chemicals’ ability to weaken children’s immune systems, the EPA said last year that PFASs could cause harm at levels “much lower than previously thought.”
“We as a community of scientists, policymakers and regulators really missed the boat early on,” said Susan Pinney, director of the Center for Environmental Genetics at the University of Cincinnati.
PFAS linked to health problems
There is also evidence that the compounds are linked to low birth weight, kidney cancer, and a host of other health problems. It is not clear what the EPA will now propose and how well it will protect people from these newly known harms.
PFOA and PFOS are part of a larger family of compounds called PFAS, for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, which are widespread, do not break down in the environment, and have been around for decades. They have been used in non-stick pans, food containers, and fire-fighting foam. Its use has now been mostly phased out in the US, but a few remain.
Water providers are preparing for strict standards and tests that will undoubtedly reveal PFOA and PFOS in communities that do not yet know what chemicals are in their water.
“This rule would help ensure that communities are not poisoned,” said Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, Earthjustice’s lead health and toxic exposure attorney.
PFAS Affects Colorado Tap Water
Over the past decade, an increasing number of cities and towns, often adjoining manufacturing plants or Air Force bases, suddenly realized they had a problem. In 2016, for example, Sarah McKinney was on maternity leave when she learned there was too much PFOA and PFOS in the tap water in her Colorado Springs suburb. She picked up her weeks-old daughter and hurried to buy enough bottled water for her family of five.
“If I’m just spitting it out, can I brush my teeth?” she remembers wondering.
In response to concerns from people who had been drinking their water for years, the McKinney water utility switched to a different source, provided water bottle filling stations and installed a $2.5 million treatment system that was the first of its kind in the country, according to Lucas. Hale, the administrator of the water district. The chemicals had gotten into the water from nearby Peterson Air Force Base, which later built a treatment facility.
For communities with pollutants, it’s not a cheap problem to solve.
Nationwide, it could cost an estimated $38 billion to remove enough of the chemicals to comply with a strict EPA rule limiting them to places where they cannot be detected, according to an estimate prepared by engineering consultant Black & Veatch for the American Water Works Association, an industry group. There will also be ongoing costs for filter material and testing.
The consultant analyzed the federal and state test results and estimated that 4-12% of water providers nationwide will need PFAS treatment due to the EPA rule.
$2 billion available to states for PFAS
Smaller and poorer communities will have a harder time paying for the new systems and training staff on how to use them, experts said. And in general, smaller water providers with fewer resources already violate water quality rules more often than utilities serving big cities.
“Small systems often need technologies that are simpler to operate,” said Jonathan Pressman, an EPA water researcher and engineer. The agency offers technical assistance to states and communities and recently made $2 billion available to states for contaminants like PFAS.
Inside EPA’s research facility in Cincinnati, a row of forearm-sized vertical glass tubes was partially filled with a resin material that can kill PFAS. The work ensures that the agency knows how long it will last and how much PFAS it removes. This is important for designing treatment systems.
Last year, the agency lowered its voluntary and conservative health thresholds to levels that tests can’t even detect: a fraction of one part per billion. In 2016, it was 70 ppt. Before that, he was even taller. As the EPA recognizes the increased danger of these compounds, it will mean that people who were once told their water was safe to drink will discover that it actually requires treatment.
‘You shouldn’t drink the water in Commerce City’
When people feel deceived about the safety of tap water, they are less likely to drink it. Instead, they tend to reach for expensive bottled water and consume sugary drinks more frequently, choices associated with health problems such as diabetes.
“We have challenges in this community with confidence,” said Abel Moreno, district manager for the South Adams County Water and Sewer District that serves Commerce City, an industrial stretch of Denver. The contaminants leaked from a nearby chemical manufacturing plant decades ago. Although the district built a facility to treat the contamination, it sparked simmering mistrust in the predominantly Latino neighborhood and questions about how long people had been exposed.
Last year, Betty Rivas was surprised to receive a letter telling her that the drinking fountains her 8-year-old son used at school were not safe. PFAS stories had been on the local news and the school district told families to use bottled water. She reinforced Rivas’s fears.
“With this recent PFAS issue, it’s all the more reason to be sure you’re not drinking the water in Commerce City,” he said.
Moreno responded that the district tested for PFAS long before the news reports, in 2018. It discovered extremely high levels in certain wells, but once the water passed through the treatment plant, it did not exceed the health warning threshold of the EPA established in time. Moreno’s agency closed the wells. He said the letter Rivas received was frustrating because PFAS had not been triggered, but had just made the news. Now, the district buys and mixes water from Denver to keep PFAS at undetectable levels and plans to build a treatment plant for a permanent solution.
PFAS standards have been set locally so far
In the US, only local utilities and state regulators have so far imposed changes, not the federal government. Michigan set a drinking water limit and paid for the tests. Those tests helped quickly find and fix some contaminated spots, and Michigan officials have said their caps haven’t proved too costly since.
However, the new standards will force compromise, according to Chad Seidel, president of a water consulting firm.
“The resources put into addressing this are somewhat at the cost” of other needs, such as removing dangerous lead pipes and replacing old water pipes, he said.
Earthjustice’s Kalmuss-Katz said too many people drink contaminated water. Cost cannot be a barrier.
“The solution is to do whatever it takes to make sure people don’t get sick,” he said.
Phillis reported from St. Louis.
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