CDC will guide first-ever national evaluation of drinking water contaminant.
By Brett Walton, Circle of Blue
Recognizing widespread public concern over drinking water contamination, Congress approved a five-year, $7-million study of the human health consequences of perfluorinated compounds, a class of chemicals that came to national prominence in the last two years amid detection in the water of hundreds of communities, households, and military bases.
The study could provide a foundation for future regulatory action against the nonstick, heat-resistant chemicals that have been used in a range of consumer and industrial products, from nonstick cookware and waterproof jackets to fabrics that cover stadium roofs and foams that extinguish oil fires.
Though phased out of production in the United States, the two most common perfluorinated compounds are ubiquitous in the environment and are associated in human bodies with high cholesterol, kidney cancer, and liver damage. But they have no mandatory federal limit in drinking water.
The study was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, a Defense Department spending bill that the House and Senate agreed to last week. The study will be coordinated by two federal health research agencies, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry.
Public health and chemicals researchers applauded the move. Tom Bruton, a policy fellow at the Green Science Policy Institute, a Berkeley-based research group, was pleased that the final bill expanded the scope of the study. Earlier language had focused only on PFOA and PFOS, the two most well-known perfluorinated chemicals. Dozens more compounds with similarly durable carbon-fluorine chemical structures are in commercial use.
“We have very little information about the human health effects of the other compounds,” Bruton told Circle of Blue. Bruton was one of 39 scientists who signed a letter asking Congress to approve such a study. Key questions, they said, include: What level of chemical exposure increases the risk of disease? Do exposures at certain ages such as infancy or during pregnancy have more severe consequences? How does exposure through drinking water relate to accumulation in the body?
The study was part of the Defense Department budget because perfluorinated compounds have contaminated groundwater wells on and near military bases across the country, primarily through the use of firefighting foams. Through December 31, 2016, the Defense Department had spent about $200 million to assess contaminated sites, test water systems, and provide filters and bottled water in response to PFOA and PFOS. The spending bill provides $72 million to the Air Force and Navy for PFOA and PFOS cleanup.
Language in the bill says that the study “shall not interfere with any regulatory processes of the Environmental Protection Agency.” But establishing that a chemical harms health is one of the deciding factors for EPA regulations. Jeff Kray, an attorney at Marten Law, a firm that specializes in environmental law, interprets that provision as meaning that the study is not a justification for delaying rulemaking by the executive branch.
“The fact that there is a study going on can’t be used as a shield against regulatory action,” Kray told Circle of Blue.
The bill also requires the Defense Department to assess alternative firefighting foams that do not use PFOA or PFOS and to evaluate how federal regulation of those compounds in drinking water would affect the future cost of cleanup. Eight bases with contaminated groundwater will be selected for in-depth analysis that will inform the five-year health study.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a non-binding “health advisory” in May 2016 for PFOA and PFOS. Regulatory action has largely taken place at the state level. Earlier in November, New Jersey became the first state to order utilities to test for PFOA and treat it in drinking water, setting a standard of 14 parts per trillion.
“Right now individual states and communities are having to come up with their own strategy,” Bruton said, referring both to health standards and the collection of data to inform them. “It’s not the most efficient way to address this. It’s not going to lead to collecting the scale of data that is needed.”
One such study shows the importance large-scale evaluations. The C8 Science Panel, a study of 70,000 residents in the Ohio River Valley who were exposed to PFOA from a DuPont manufacturing facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia provided a significant piece of what scientists know about how perfluorinated chemicals damage human bodies. That study, from 2005 to 2013, found that PFOA exposure was associated with thyroid disease, testicular cancer and kidney cancer.
Brett writes about agriculture, energy, infrastructure, and the politics and economics of water in the United States. He also writes the Federal Water Tap, Circle of Blue’s weekly digest of U.S. government water news. He is the winner of two Society of Environmental Journalists reporting awards, one of the top honors in American environmental journalism: first place for explanatory reporting for a series on septic system pollution in the United States(2016) and third place for beat reporting in a small market (2014). He received the Sierra Club’s Distinguished Service Award in 2018. Brett lives in Seattle, where he hikes the mountains and bakes pies. Contact Brett Walton