Read the full article by Devon Burger (Water Quality & the West, Stanford University)
“The first flyer arrived at each house in early fall. Another came in November. The message they delivered was alarming: the residents of Pleasanton, California had been relying on contaminated water sources.
What they didn’t say was where the contamination had come from. Or how exactly the city planned on handling the contamination in the long term.
Pleasanton, located in the East Bay about 25 miles east of Oakland and six miles west of Livermore, is home to an estimated 80,000 residents, nearly a quarter of them under 18. It is one of many towns around the country facing a newly recognized problem: PFAS.
PFAS (polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of thousands of synthetic chemicals found in many ordinary items, from non-stick pans to dental floss to microwave popcorn bags. These chemicals have been in use since the 1940s, but much about them remains unknown. They have strong carbon bonds, making them persistent in the environment and in the human body—they are also known as ‘forever chemicals.’
A New ‘Forever Chemical’ Known to Be Bad. But How Bad?
These substances are the latest entry into the directory of toxic industrial chemicals that have made their way into people’s bodies over the last several decades. Their predecessors include lead, asbestos, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and chromium 6, the focus of the 2000 ‘Erin Brockovich’ movie. But PFAS pose an unusual challenge the predecessors did not…
But newer chemicals pose a different problem. Many of the PFAS contaminating wells like Pleasanton’s were created in the mid-20th century, when chemical marvels were hailed as signs of progress. From 1935 to 1982, the advertising tagline of DuPont, the giant chemical company, was ‘Better Things For Better Living… Through Chemistry.’ PFAS-containing Teflon, invented by a DuPont chemist, was heavily marketed as a nonstick surface for cooking pots.
Even as more information on PFAS is available every day, basic questions remain unanswered. In Pleasanton, the source of contamination is unclear. Nor are all effects of PFAS known, though some are shown in the 2019 film ‘Dark Water.’ And associated cleanup costs are anyone’s guess. One European study estimates the price tag — including environmental screening, contamination monitoring, and water treatment — to be anywhere between 821 million and 170.8 billion Euros ($927 million to $193 billion).
Lawsuits produced evidence that DuPont knew in 1979 that small doses of one kind of PFAS, known as perfluoroctanoic acid, or PFOA, could harm lab animals; the company had reason to suspect potential dangers from PFAS long before the public did. So did 3M, another big firm. “The chemical industry had [studies] showing health effects long before they were shared with the EPA or the scientific communities,” explained Anna Reade, a staff scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. Now we’re playing catch up. ‘That gap comes from not being told by industry that they were seeing these health effects. Or even just that they were finding PFAS in every blood sample they looked at way, way back in the day.’
So these chemicals have been in the environment for decades with little publicly known about the associated risks. Even now their precise health impact on humans remains unclear. Because scientists can’t directly test humans, they have to turn to animals. Some animal studies have linked PFAS to health effects including changes in liver function and altered hormone levels. However troubling, the studies do not conclusively show the impact of PFAS on people…
While Questions Remain, Evidence Suggests Limiting Human Exposure
Even with uncertainty, there are ways forward. A community member recently told Reade that their doctor suggested they act like they’re immunocompromised during COVID-19. Though not diagnosed as immunocompromised, Reade’s acquaintance has high levels of PFAS, which are associated with immunosuppression. ‘Knowing somebody’s exposed isn’t necessarily going to give you a perfect answer on what to do next,’ said Reade, ‘but it gives you more information on how to be proactive with your health.’
Pleasanton has a similar philosophy. ‘We’ve actually taken a real proactive approach,’ said Kathleen Yurchak, the Director of Operations and Water Utilities for Pleasanton. After finding the contamination, Pleasanton sent flyers by mail, emailed customers directly, included information on utility bills, and discussed it at a city council meeting in November.
The two most contaminated wells both contained PFOA and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS)—two of the most widely studied PFAS. With combined PFOA and PFOS levels of over 100 parts per trillion, both wells were quickly designated last priority: they will only be operated when necessary. The town hired a consultant to identify treatment options and their cost…”