Americans must know if they are exposed to chemicals — reporters need access to EPA

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Tuesday, selected reporters were blocked and an Associated Press reporter was forcibly removed when they tried to cover the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Leadership Summit on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances(PFAS) — a critical drinking water issue. This comes a week after reports that EPA leadership worked with the White House to suppress a draft toxicological assessment of four of these chemicals by the Centers for Disease Control. 

The coverage has rightly focused on this disgraceful treatment of reporters trying to inform the American public — and apparent attempts by EPA leadership to hide an important study. But less attention has been paid to the public health threat underlying these stories. As with many Pruitt scandals, there are real world consequences for American families.

{mosads}From Hoosick Falls, New York; to the Cape Fear region of North Carolina; to Kent County, Michigan; to Meridian, Mississippi; to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, local communities and states are struggling with how to handle drinking water contaminated with PFAS — a class of chemicals for which they have insufficient information and guidance from the federal government.


The summit represented a critical opportunity for federal agencies to demonstrate leadership, assist states, and develop plans to move forward on this complex issue through engagement with participants. Despite the troubling actions by Pruitt and his appointees, EPA career staff, state leaders, and other participants were able to hold important, substantive discussions. 

PFASs are a class of chemicals widely used in consumer products, industrial and manufacturing processes, and firefighting foams — and testing has indicated widespread exposure in humans. Most of the health research has focused on two varieties, the compounds PFOA and PFOS.

In 2016, EPA issued a drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion for these two chemicals because studies demonstrated that exposure to them may result in a number of adverse health effects, including low birth weight, accelerated puberty, cancer, immune effects and thyroid effects. After decades of use, PFOS and PFOA were largely phased out, and many companies have since switched to similar molecules thought to be less risky. 

The problem is we still know far too little about the entire class of PFASs, including the newer versions. This week, the Environmental Defense Fund released environmental assessments of three PFAS substances that we obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the Food and Drug Administration.

Based on industry estimates, we maintain that paper mills using these compounds may be significant sources of contamination of drinking water and potentially compost. Given the estimated discharges of up to 225 pounds of these similar PFASs a day, we identified over a dozen major waterways that could have contamination levels as high as 1,200 ppt, above the current advisory limit for PFOA and PFOS.  

Communities are rightfully demanding to know where these chemicals are being used, what chemicals they should be testing for, and what levels might be considered safe. State and federal officials need to be working together with the support of academic researchers, utilities and public health officials to solve this complex crisis. 

Administrator Pruitt’s heavy-handed tactics at the PFAS summit were, sadly, indicative of his approach to assessing the safety of chemicals. He chose someone straight from the chemical industry’s lobbying arm for a key position in the agency’s chemical safety office. He has worked to undermine the strong, new bipartisan chemical safety law passed in 2016. He has blocked the input of independent scientists by banning EPA grant recipients from serving on the agency’s advisory groups And he recently announced a proposed rule that will censor science that sheds light on the human health impacts of exposure to chemicals. 

Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle are starting to stand up against Pruitt’s failed leadership on drinking water safety. Yesterday’s events should be setting off alarm bells for all who care about the health of American families.

Sarah Vogel, PhD, is vice president for the Health Program at Environmental Defense Fund.

Tags contamination Environment EPA Pollution Sarah Vogel Water

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