Read the full article by Cheryl Hogue (c&en)
“An article in the local newspaper caught Andrea Amico’s eye in May 2014. It reported that one of the three drinking-water wells at a sprawling business and industrial park nearby was shut down because of high levels of chemical contamination.
‘Instantly, my heart sank,’ says the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, woman. Amico recalls her reaction to the news: ‘My husband works there and he drinks water all day, and my two kids go to daycare there and they drink water all day.’
She’d never heard of the substances tainting the tap water—Portsmouth was one of the first communities in the US to discover these chemicals in public drinking water. Amico, who holds a master’s degree in occupational therapy and works in health care, started researching health effects from these contaminants and at first found little information.
Today, the situation has changed.
Amico now knows the identity of the chemicals found at the facility, the Pease Tradeport, built on the site of the former Pease Air Force Base after it closed in 1991. She confidently tosses out the term ‘per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances‘ (PFAS), which describes this class of compounds. She easily describes the strong carbon-fluorine bonds the chemical industry forges in manufacturing PFAS to create products that are durable under harsh conditions. She explains that these bonds mean PFAS don’t break down easily in the environment, earning them the nickname ‘forever chemicals.’ She understands that the PFAS in the Tradeport tap water likely stemmed from firefighting foam used at the air base. She is up-to-date on studies describing the potential health effects from these substances.
And she knows that the blood of her husband and two children who attended the Tradeport daycare tested high for PFAS. In 2015 Amico and two other women founded a community activist group that helped secure those blood tests and was instrumental in getting a federal health study of PFAS-exposed people.
That investigation just started, so Amico doesn’t know what the PFAS levels in her family’s blood might portend for their health.
Meanwhile, Amico’s group has joined others across the US calling for the federal Environmental Protection Agency to limit the amount of all PFAS collectively in drinking water to 1 part per trillion (ppt). There are approximately 5,000 known PFAS. The EPA currently has a nonbinding advisory recommendation of 70 ppt for just 2 of the substances, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), individually and combined.
To set an enforceable limit, the EPA must pass through a complex set of steps established in law to regulate contaminants in drinking water. And powerful lobbies that face cleanup liability, including the chemical industry, oppose regulation of PFAS as a group.
LONG TIME COMING
The question of whether and how much to regulate these persistent chemicals in drinking water has spanned the administrations of US presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald J. Trump. ‘This is a multi-administration failure to take action on PFOA and PFOS and on the broader class of PFAS chemicals that may pose health effects,’ says Melanie Benesh, legislative attorney for the Environmental Working Group, which has called for limiting the two chemicals in drinking water since the early 2000s. ‘It has taken EPA an extraordinarily long time to do anything.’
Action toward possibly regulating these chemicals in drinking water began about a decade ago, when the EPA gathered data collected by water utilities on occurrence and levels of PFOA and PFOS. Neither PFOA nor PFOS is manufactured domestically anymore, but communities across the nation face legacy pollution. Also, either chemical may still be imported as a component, such as a coating, in products…”