WASHINGTON – As parents send their kids back to school, reopening buildings safely is top of mind. Parents are worried about the coronavirus pandemic but likely unaware that some schools are near industrial facilities known or suspected of producing or using the fluorinated “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
A new analysis by the Environmental Working Group identifies 27 schools or child care facilities in 18 states that maintain their own water systems and are less than one mile from a facility that could be discharging toxic PFAS. Wisconsin had the most schools, with four, but others are in New Jersey, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other states from coast to coast.
PFAS compounds contaminate water in more than 2,000 communities nationwide, and some are linked to a greater risk of cancer and other serious diseases.
“We don’t know the full scope of PFAS pollution in our water, but we do know that where you look for PFAS contamination, you usually find it,” said Jared Hayes, policy analyst at EWG.
“There’s a high probability that these sites are discharging PFAS near these schools, so the schools should test their water,” Hayes added. “It’s unconscionable that parents and families bear this burden, while companies are able to legally discharge these chemicals.”
“The discovery that harmful PFAS chemicals are being discharged in close proximity to schools, potentially contaminating our children’s drinking water, is deeply concerning," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has led Senate efforts to reduce industrial discharges of PFAS. "New Yorkers, especially our children, should be able to trust that their water is safe, but far too many communities across the state, and country, have had their water supplies polluted by toxic chemicals."
"We are well aware of the potential harm that these dangerous chemicals can cause and we cannot allow them to contaminate our water sources. Congress must do more to protect New Yorkers. That’s why I am the lead Senate sponsor of the Clean Water Standards for PFAS Act, which would regulate these chemicals under the Clean Water Act to stop further PFAS pollution from industrial sites. I’m proud to support EWG’s strong research and advocacy to protect New Yorkers from PFAS,” added Sen. Gillibrand.
PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down in the environment and build up in our bodies. Even very low doses of PFAS in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reduced effectiveness of childhood vaccines, reproductive and immune system harm, liver or thyroid disease and other serious health problems.
“All Americans are exposed to mixtures of PFAS chemicals every day, from contamination in water, food and consumer products,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “These are some of the most toxic and persistent chemicals ever produced. Schools should be healthy places where children are able to flourish, not environments that could put their health at risk.”
Independent scientific studies have recommended a level for PFAS in drinking water of 1 part per trillion, or ppt, a standard endorsed by EWG. Some states – including New Hampshire, Michigan, Ohio and Vermont – and school districts have tested for PFAS in school tap water, and PFAS was found in each state, at levels above 1 ppt.
Because PFAS are not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, schools are not required by federal law to test for the presence of PFAS in tap water, nor are they required to filter it out.
Under the Clean Water Act, there are no federal restrictions on industrial PFAS discharges. Only a few states have taken action to control discharges. Michigan, for example, has adopted restrictions on PFAS discharges to rivers and lakes. States can also impose restrictions on discharges on a case-by-case basis, as North Carolina has done at a Chemours facility in Fayetteville.
In January, the House passed the PFAS Action Act, which includes an amendment by Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) to set deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to adopt standards for industrial discharges of PFAS. Gillibrand has introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
“This alarming study highlights widespread PFAS contamination that our advocates have been highlighting for years,” said Rep. Pappas. “It is time to take action to protect the health and safety of our communities, and as we complete our work on the Water Resources Development Act we must set deadlines for EPA to reduce industrial discharges of PFAS into our water.”
The PFAS Protection Act also includes a provision that would set a two-year deadline for the EPA to establish a national drinking water standard for the two most notorious PFAS chemicals – PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard.
The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action. Visit https://www.ewg.org/pfaschemicals/