Calls for action on toxics White House called 'PR nightmare'
HORSHAM, Pa. (AP) — Lauren Woeher wonders if her 16-month-old daughter has been harmed by tap water contaminated with toxic industrial compounds used in products like nonstick cookware, carpets, firefighting foam and fast-food wrappers. Henry Betz, at 76, rattles around his house alone at night, thinking about the water his family unknowingly drank for years that was tainted by the same contaminants, and the pancreatic cancers that killed wife Betty Jean and two others in his household.
Tim Hagey, manager of a local water utility, recalls how he used to assure people that the local public water was safe. That was before testing showed it had some of the highest levels of the toxic compounds of any public water system in the U.S.
“You all made me out to be a liar,” Hagey, general water and sewer manager in the eastern Pennsylvania town of Warminster, told Environmental Protection Agency officials at a hearing last month. The meeting drew residents and officials from Horsham and other affected towns in eastern Pennsylvania, and officials from some of the other dozens of states dealing with the same contaminants.
At “community engagement sessions” around the country this summer like the one in Horsham, residents and state, local and military officials are demanding that the EPA act quickly — and decisively — to clean up local water systems testing positive for dangerous levels of the chemicals, perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The Trump administration called the contamination “a potential public relations nightmare” earlier this year after federal toxicology studies found that some of the compounds are more hazardous than previously acknowledged.
PFAS have been in production since the 1940s, and there are about 3,500 different types. Dumped into water, the air or soil, some forms of the compounds are expected to remain intact for thousands of years; one public-health expert dubbed them “forever chemicals.”
EPA testing from 2013 to 2015 found significant amounts of PFAS in public water supplies in 33 U.S. states. The finding helped move PFAS up as a national priority.
So did scientific studies that firmed up the health risks. One, looking at a kind of PFAS once used in making Teflon, found a probable link with kidney and testicular cancer, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, hypertension in pregnant women and high cholesterol. Other recent studies point to immune problems in children, among other things.
In 2016, the EPA set advisory limits — without any direct enforcement — for two kinds of PFAS that had recently been phased out of production in the United States. But manufacturers are still producing, and releasing into the air and water, newer versions of the compounds.
Earlier this year, federal toxicologists decided that even the EPA’s 2016 advisory levels for the two phased-out versions of the compound were several times too high for safety.
EPA says it will prepare a national management plan for the compounds by the end of the year. But Peter Grevatt, director of the agency’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, told The Associated Press that there’s no deadline for a decision on possible regulatory actions.