Setting a national drinking water standard for the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS – and passing the implementation costs to ratepayers and private well owners, while letting industry to keep dumping PFAS in drinking water – is the epitome of environmental injustice.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s plan to clean up PFAS contamination could create exactly that outcome, because the companies discharging the toxic chemicals won’t be on the hook for paying treatment costs for getting PFAS out of drinking water. Just as bad, the agency has outlined a lengthy timeline for regulation, despite the need for urgent action.
A final EPA drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS, two of the most notorious PFAS chemicals, will be in place by the end of 2023, and the agency might not finalize new limits on industrial discharges of the harmful substances for a decade or more.
Setting a hard deadline for the EPA to set such limits faster, as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.) have proposed, should be a top priority for Congress.
PFAS have been confirmed in the drinking water of nearly 3,000 communities and are likely to be in the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans. And studies suggest that communities with environmental justice concerns are disproportionately harmed by PFAS, who will be further harmed by any delay in cleaning up. Specifically:
- Using California’s environmental justice screening tool, scientists were able to determine that low-income, people of color and indigenous communities in California had very high levels of PFAS in their drinking water.
- An analysis of drinking water in New Jersey found that people of color were more likely to have PFAS detected in their drinking water.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists found that people of color were more likely to live within five miles of a site contaminated with PFAS.
PFAS are a large family of chemicals linked to harm to the immune system, such as reduced vaccine efficacy; harm to development and the reproductive system, such as reduced birth weight and impacts on fertility; increased risk of certain cancers; and effects on metabolism, such as changes in cholesterol and weight gain.
EWG has used EPA data to identify nearly 30,000 industrial sites known or suspected of using PFAS, and many of these manufacturers are clustered in communities with environmental justice concerns that are disproportionately harmed by industrial pollution.
For instance, for decades 3M discharged PFAS into the Tennessee River in Alabama. As a result, eight water systems downstream of the 3M plant, including Northeast Alabama Water District, in Fort Payne, and Southside Water Works and Sewer Board, in Gadsden, were forced to issue alerts due to unsafe levels of PFAS in drinking water.
Fort Payne has a poverty rate of 22 percent, and Gadsden has a poverty rate of 27 percent, compared to a national average of 14 percent. The Black community in Gadsden makes up almost 37 percent of the population, compared to the national average of 12 percent.
Other communities harmed by PFAS include Elizabeth, N.J., where people of color make up 86.7 percent of the population, and Fayetteville, N.C., where people of color make up more than half the community and the drinking water has high levels of PFAS.
To begin to address these injustices, the EPA must quickly finalize a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS. The agency must also move much faster to place limits on industrial releases of PFAS if it’s going to meet Administrator Michael Regan’s environmental justice goals.