The fanfare surrounding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s release Thursday of its “PFAS Action Plan” was grand. The plan was not. The EPA took no concrete action. It was not a plan of action, but a plan for future plans.
PFAS is short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, a family of chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS. Extensive studies of PFOA and PFOS have found health risks associated with the chemicals that include kidney and testicular cancer, pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, increases in cholesterol, thyroid disease, decreased response to vaccines, asthma, decreased fertility and decreased birth weight.
It’s serious stuff, and has relevance for the northwest Alabama region.
Responding to a nonbinding EPA health advisory in 2016, West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority advised its customers to stop drinking the water, which exceeded EPA’s recommended level for long-term ingestion of the PFAS chemicals. All indications are that the source of the chemicals was Decatur industry.
Florence, Sheffield, Muscle Shoals, Cherokee and Colbert County all pull water from the same source as the West Morgan-East Lawrence Water Authority — the Tennessee River. However, last month officials with those city and county agencies reported the amounts of the PFOA and PFOS chemicals found locally have been minuscule.
Because of the studies linking PFOA and PFOS to serious health issues, most production and use of the chemicals in the U.S. has ended. But the EPA’s response was muted. By the time the federal agency began taking the chemicals seriously — it orchestrated the phase out beginning in 2002 — the chemicals were everywhere. Remediation is enormously expensive.
Critics were quick to point out Thursday the EPA appears to be making the same mistake in its slow-motion approach to other chemicals. As the EPA noted in its action plan, chemicals to replace PFOA and PFOS are being developed rapidly — far more rapidly than they can be studied.
The acting administrator of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, correctly said Thursday that Americans “count on the EPA every time they turn on their faucet.”
What he neglected to say was that, at least when it comes to PFAS, history indicates that trust has been misplaced.
David Whiteside, founder and executive director of Tennessee Riverkeeper, said last month the EPA under Wheeler’s direction has been “captured by polluters.”
“He has consistently shown disdain for regulations that protect Americans’ public health,” Whiteside said.
That perception drives home the need for the EPA to move quickly on the PFAS chemicals issue, both to help communities clean up contaminated sites, and to prevent industries from wreaking more havoc with poorly understood replacement chemicals.
The water departments and authorities in the Shoals area work hard to ensure their customers are getting safe drinking water. To continue to do so, they need tools and supporting regulations that only the EPA can provide.