Federal agency releases ‘public relations nightmare’ water contaminant study

Federal agency releases ‘public relations nightmare’ water contaminant study

A federal health agency released Wednesday a draft study that a White House aide previously warned could be a “public relations nightmare” for the Trump administration.

The study from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) found that exposure to two key drinking water contaminants could be harmful at levels seven- to 10-times lower than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had previously estimated in a health warning.

The substances, both in a category of manmade chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), have been a hot-button issue lately. They are used in manufacturing certain non-stick and flame-retardant products, and have been used extensively in airport firefighting, leading to leeching and contamination in drinking water.

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EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittInterior chief Zinke to leave administration EPA to pursue final 'science transparency' rule in 2019 Trump administration to unveil strategy for fighting lead exposure MORE hosted a summit with state, industrial and environmental representatives last month on the chemicals and promised to take various actions, such as to formally explore whether to set limits for their concentration in drinking water.

The study released Wednesday attracted attention earlier in May, when an email disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act showed that an unidentified White House staffer warned the EPA that the release of the study could be a “public relations nightmare” for the Trump administration, since it would show health harms at low levels.

The ATSDR's research is meant to inform agencies like the EPA as they consider regulations.

The study found minimal risk levels — an estimate of how much someone could consume safely — at about 7 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and 11 parts per trillion for perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The EPA in 2016 published a “health advisory” for PFOS and PFOA that set the combined exposure level for both substances at 70 parts per trillion.

The EPA said Wednesday that it will continue its work on the substances with various stakeholders, including the ATSDR.

“Addressing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is one of EPA’s top priorities and the agency is committed to continuing to participate in and contribute to a coordinated approach across the federal government,” Peter Grevatt, head of the EPA’s groundwater and drinking water office, said in a statement

“EPA looks forward to continuing to collaborate with ATSDR and all of our federal partners as we work together to protect public health.”

Health advocates said the study should push the EPA into taking strong action.

“This study confirms that the EPA’s guidelines for PFAS levels in drinking water woefully underestimate risks to human health,” Olga Naidenko, senior science adviser at the Environmental Working Group, said in a statement.

“We urge EPA to collect and publish all water results showing PFAS contamination at any level, so Americans across the country can take immediate steps to protect themselves and their families.”