‘Not a prob­lem you can run away from’

Com­mu­ni­ties con­front the threat of un­reg­u­lated chem­i­cals in drink­ing wa­ter

Orlando Sentinel (Sunday) - - NATION & WORLD - By Brady Den­nis a drink­ing-wa­ter ex­pert for the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil

PARCH­MENT, Mich. — The day this small town told its res­i­dents to stop drink­ing the wa­ter, Jen­nifer and Justin Koehler de­cided to sell their white clap­board house and move their two chil­dren else­where.

Sara and Matt Dean, who had re­lo­cated sev­eral years ear­lier from Chicago, started wor­ry­ing about the health of their young son and the baby ar­riv­ing soon.

And Tammy Cooper felt a welling in­dig­na­tion that would turn her into an ac­tivist — one who would travel to Washington to push for ac­tion on the un­reg­u­lated chem­i­cals con­tam­i­nat­ing her fam­ily’s drink­ing wa­ter and that of mil­lions of other Amer­i­cans.

That late July day, this town along the banks of the Kala­ma­zoo River be­came the lat­est com­mu­nity af­fected by a ubiq­ui­tous, un­reg­u­lated class of com­pounds known as polyflu­o­roalkyl and per­flu­o­roalkyl sub­stances, or PFAS.

The man-made chem­i­cals have long been used in consumer prod­ucts such as non­stick cook­ware, wa­ter­re­pel­lent fab­rics and grease-re­sis­tant pa­per prod­ucts, as well as in fire­fight­ing foams. But ex­po­sures have been as­so­ci­ated with health prob­lems in­clud­ing thy­roid dis­ease, weak­ened im­mu­nity, in­fer­til­ity risks and cer­tain can­cers. The com­pounds do not break down in the en­vi­ron­ment.

In Parch­ment, where they were once used by a long-shut­tered pa­per mill, tests found PFAS lev­els in the wa­ter sys­tem in ex­cess of 1,500 parts per tril­lion — more than 20 times the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency’s rec­om­mended lifetime ex­po­sure limit of 70 parts per tril­lion.

Lo­cal of­fi­cials promptly alerted res­i­dents. Michi­gan of­fi­cials de­clared a state of emer­gency. Res­i­dents started pick­ing up free cases of bot­tled wa­ter at the high school. Within weeks, the town aban­doned the mu­nic­i­pal wells that had served 3,000 peo­ple and be­gan get­ting wa­ter from nearby Kala­ma­zoo.

“This is not a prob­lem you can run away from,” Cooper said. “There are Parch­ments across the coun­try.”

Har­vard Uni­ver­sity re­searchers say pub­lic drink­ing-wa­ter sup­plies serv­ing more than 6 mil­lion Amer­i­cans have tested for the chem­i­cals at or above the EPA’s thresh­old — which many ex­perts ar­gue should be far lower to safe­guard pub­lic health. The level is an agency guide­line; the fed­eral gov­ern­ment does not reg­u­late PFAS.

The com­pounds’ pres­ence has rat­tled com­mu­ni­ties from Hoosick Falls, N.Y., to Tuc­son. They have been par­tic­u­larly preva­lent on or near mil­i­tary bases, which have long used PFAS-laden foams in train­ing ex­er­cises.

Both houses of Congress held hear­ings on the prob­lem last year, and law­mak­ers in­tro­duced bills to com­pel the gov­ern­ment to test for PFAS chem­i­cals na­tion­wide and to re­spond wher­ever wa­ter and soil pol­luted by them are found. In late Novem­ber, the head of the EPA vowed that the agency would soon un­veil a “na­tional strat­egy” to ad­dress the si­t­u­a­tion.

Af­fected com­mu­ni­ties are still wait­ing.

“There are some very real hu­man im­pacts from this stuff,” said Erik Ol­son, a drink­ing-wa­ter ex­pert for the Nat­u­ral Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil. “Most peo­ple have no idea they are be­ing ex­posed.”

Michi­gan is one of the few states where of­fi­cials are try­ing to de­ter­mine the ex­tent of PFAS con­tam­i­na­tion. Health of­fi­cials un­der­took statewide tests this year across 1,380 pub­lic wa­ter sup­plies and at more than 400 schools that op­er­ate their own wells.

“When we look for it, we tend to find it,” said Eden Wells, the state’s chief med­i­cal ex­ec­u­tive. Yet de­tec­tion raises dif­fi­cult ques­tions, given the lack of reg­u­la­tion in­volv­ing PFAS in wa­ter and the evolv­ing re­search on its long-term health ef­fects.

“Many of our re­sponses are out­strip­ping the sci­en­tific knowl­edge we need,” Wells said.

More is known about two par­tic­u­lar types of the chem­i­cals, per­flu­o­rooc­tane sul­fonate (PFOA) and per­flu­o­rooc­tanoic acid (PFOS), which companies phased out years ago amid grow­ing ev­i­dence that both were ending up in the blood of nearly ev­ery Amer­i­can. But thou­sands of other PFAS chem­i­cals re­main in use — among the many threats, in­clud­ing ar­senic and lead, to drink­ing wa­ter na­tion­wide.

“From a pol­icy per­spec­tive, what both­ers me about all this is there are in­dus­tries ev­ery­where that don’t re­ally have to re­port what they are us­ing,” said Detlef Knappe, a North Carolina State Uni­ver­sity en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gi­neer whose re­search helped iden­tify an­other PFAS chem­i­cal, known as GenX, in Wilm­ing­ton’s drink­ing wa­ter sup­ply. “As a class, there are so many com­pounds ... and it pops up in the most un­ex­pected places.”

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s fo­cus on the prob­lem has been in­con­sis­tent.

Politico re­ported in May that the White House and EPA sought to block pub­li­ca­tion of a fed­eral health study on the na­tion­wide ef­fects of PFAS con­tam­i­na­tion af­ter one ad­min­is­tra­tion aide warned in an email that it could re­sult in a “pub­lic re­la­tions night­mare.” The study from the “There are some very real hu­man im­pacts from this stuff. Most peo­ple have no idea they are be­ing ex­posed.” fed­eral Agency for Toxic Sub­stances and Dis­ease Reg­istry, which even­tu­ally was re­leased, sug­gested that the EPA’s ex­ist­ing, nonen­force­able stan­dard is in­ad­e­quate to pro­tect pub­lic health and should be much lower.

The same month, the EPA held a PFAS “sum­mit” with in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives, pub­lic health groups, tribal lead­ers and of­fi­cials from all lev­els of gov­ern­ment. Then-ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt pledged ac­tion, say­ing, “There are con­cerns about these chem­i­cals across the coun­try be­cause of their per­sis­tence, their dura­bil­ity, get­ting into the en­vi­ron­ment and im­pact­ing com­mu­ni­ties in an ad­verse way.”

Lit­tle has hap­pened since then, how­ever.

At a hear­ing in early fall, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., pressed the EPA’s direc­tor of ground­wa­ter and drink­ing wa­ter on when the agency might an­nounce its plans to reg­u­late the chem­i­cals and fi­nal­ize a drink­ing­wa­ter stan­dard. Peter Gre­vatt, an agency vet­eran who re­cently re­tired, re­sponded that of­fi­cials were con­tin­u­ing to visit com­mu­ni­ties and de­velop a long-term “man­age­ment plan.” He ac­knowl­edged that it could take the agency a “num­ber of years” to put en­force­able reg­u­la­tions in place if it de­ter­mined that the con­tam­i­nants were sur­fac­ing in enough wa­ter sys­tems to be con­sid­ered a na­tion­wide health con­cern.

“Is it a na­tional stan­dard that re­quires all the na­tion’s sys­tems to sam­ple on some reg­u­lar ba­sis and has the tools to get treat­ment in place?” Gre­vatt said. “Or is it some­thing that we’ll ad­dress more lo­cally?”

En­vi­ron­men­tal at­tor­ney Robert Bilott suc­cess­fully sued DuPont on be­half of plain­tiffs ex­posed to PFOA in Ohio and West Vir­ginia, and this year he filed a class-ac­tion law­suit against 3M, DuPont, Che­mours and sev­eral other companies on be­half of all Amer­i­cans with PFAS chem­i­cals in their blood. Some states have taken ag­gres­sive steps on their own, with New Jer­sey the first to reg­u­late cer­tain types of PFAS chem­i­cals in its drink­ing wa­ter.

Fed­eral at­ten­tion is over­due, Bilott con­tends.

“It’s a na­tional is­sue needs to be ad­dressed na­tional way,” he said.

At least out­wardly, a sense of nor­malcy has re­turned to Parch­ment.

Bot­tled wa­ter is no longer be­ing handed out at the high school, though the town is still re­ly­ing on wa­ter from Kala­ma­zoo. Of­fi­cials say their in­ves­ti­ga­tion is on­go­ing, with one likely cul­prit of the con­tam­i­na­tion be­ing a lo­cal land­fill once used by the now-closed pa­per mill.

Yet be­neath the sur­face, many peo­ple con­tinue to worry.

“In our minds, our wa­ter was safe,” said Mayor Robert Brit­i­gan, who noted that Parch­ment al­ways had been in com­pli­ance with Michi­gan’s drink­ing-wa­ter reg­u­la­tions. The city has since left the mu­nic­i­pal wa­ter busi­ness. “We will never go back to those wells,” he said.

On a sunny day last fall, cus­tomers lined up at the win­dow of Twisters for the last ice cream cones of the sea­son. The reg­u­lars sat in their usual spots in­side Scooter D’s, a pop­u­lar diner off the main drag.

“We lost a lot of busi­ness, pri­mar­ily be­cause of fear,” said man­ager Car­rie Klinger, whose fa­ther started the diner more than two decades ago. Dur­ing the month­long wa­ter cri­sis, the fam­ily bought 80 pounds of bagged ice a day, made soups with bot­tled wa­ter and served canned so­das be­cause the drink ma­chine was hooked to a wa­ter line.

“It’s still not quite back to where it was,” Klinger said. “I still have cus­tomers who that in a say they’ll never wa­ter again.”

Echoes of that dis­trust linger on Glen­dale Av­enue, where the Koehlers lived un­til mov­ing away and where the Dean and Cooper fam­i­lies re­main.

“It made me so scared, be­cause our kids are so lit­tle. And it made me an­gry,” Jen­nifer Koehler said.

Tammy Cooper and her hus­band David have wres­tled with the same emo­tions. “What did this cri­sis do? It woke me up to what drink the the gov­ern­ment is and is not do­ing on many lev­els,” she said.

For the Deans, their days re­main a mix of anx­i­ety, res­ig­na­tion and doubt.

“We re­lo­cated here think­ing it would be a re­ally great life de­ci­sion,” Sara Dean said as her 2-year-old son, Pa­trick, played on the floor. “You’re sup­posed to hear about this some­where else. This is the most av­er­age of av­er­age com­mu­ni­ties that there could be. It’s ‘Leave It To Beaver’ av­er­age. If it can hap­pen here, it can hap­pen any­where.”

The fam­ily spent thou­sands of dol­lars to in­stall a top-notch wa­ter fil­ter. Still, they hes­i­tate to wash their veg­eta­bles or cook with tap wa­ter. “It’s just this gi­ant ques­tion mark,” Matt Dean said. “Are we re­spon­si­ble stay­ing here?”

But they are stay­ing, for now. On Oct. 17, Sara gave birth to a sec­ond son, Britt. The next day, the fam­ily brought him home to Parch­ment.

DAVID KASNIC PHO­TOS/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

Sara and Matt Dean with their son, re­lo­cated to Parch­ment from Chicago sev­eral years ago, for a bet­ter qual­ity of life.

Tammy Cooper be­came an ac­tivist when the wa­ter cri­sis be­gan in Parch­ment, Mich., where she lives.

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