I’m Eileen Wray-McCann for Circle of Blue, and this is “What’s Up WIth Water,” your need-to-know news of the world’s water, made possible by support from people like you.
Taiwan is suffering its worst drought in over 50 years, and widespread water restrictions are underway. The government began rationing water last week to residents and businesses, including more than one million homes in the island’s central region. Water rationing happens twice a week, with restrictions such as no shampoo treatments at hair salons and no car washing at gas stations. The New York Times reports that rationing is pitting industries against one another. Irrigation has been prohibited on about one-fifth of Taiwan’s irrigated land. Farmers are being compensated for their losses, but some fear that their customers will move on to other suppliers. Meanwhile, the strategically important semiconductor industry has gotten extra attention. Though the industry has high water recycling rates, the government built a desalination plant to supply a tech manufacturing hub. It also built a pipeline to the area, to import water from regions that are relatively wetter.
In the United States, California officials are bracing for a long summer, after a rainy season that is the third-driest on record. According to state monitoring networks, snowpack at the beginning of April is 41 percent below normal across California. Water stored in the state’s large reservoirs is half of the average amount for this time of year. Drier mountains and hills mean that wildfires will again be a threat. Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed spending $536 million to prepare for this year’s fire season. The plan includes funds for firefighters, for protecting homes, and for managing vegetation on public and private lands. The San Jose Mercury News reports that lawmakers could approve the proposal as soon as this week.
Elsewhere in the United States, Alaska officials are suing major chemical companies over alleged groundwater contamination from toxic PFAS compounds. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages, names 3M, DuPont, and more than a dozen other companies that designed, marketed, or manufactured the compounds. The Alaska officials seek to recover the cost of investigating and cleaning up contaminated sites and treating polluted water. The lawsuit is the latest in a string of legal actions against chemical companies over the so-called forever chemicals.  In December, a group of Southern California water districts sued PFAS manufacturers for $1 billion in damages. The largest state settlement to date has been 3M’s deal with Minnesota, at $850 million.
This week Circle of Blue reports that the U.S. government is preparing to explore two critical health issues that may be connected.
Two federal health agencies plan to investigate potential links between exposure to toxic PFAS chemicals and susceptibility to viral illnesses such as Covid-19.
The study would build on federally funded investigations of PFAS exposure in nine communities near U.S. military bases where the chemicals were found in drinking water. Researchers hope to enroll more than 4,000 people from those previous investigations in the new assessment.
The study is a collaboration between the National Center for Environmental Health and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. It will be based on health questionnaires sent to people who have already had blood samples drawn for the PFAS exposure assessments.
Laurel Schaider is a senior scientist at Silent Spring Institute, a non-profit environmental research organization. She told Circle of Blue that the agencies can use their data on PFAS levels in blood serum to gain valuable insights on the connection between chemical exposure and disease. Schaider is leading a separate study in two Massachusetts communities, looking at the health impacts of PFAS exposure in drinking water.
The new federal assessment on PFAS and viral illness will support an emerging field of scientific inquiry. A decade ago, a study of about 70 thousand people in the Ohio River Valley found probable links between PFOA and chronic diseases such as high cholesterol, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer.
PFOA is one of the thousands of chemicals classified as PFAS. The compounds have been used in firefighting foam, nonstick cookware, waterproof jackets, and other commercial and industrial products. They’re called “forever chemicals” because they do not easily break down in the environment. PFAS have been found in drinking water sources across the nation .
Regarding PFAS exposures and viral illnesses, Schaider pointed to a growing body of evidence that shows how the chemicals harm the human immune system.
A 2016 National Toxicology Program review concluded that two of the chemicals, PFOS and PFOA, are hazardous to the immune system, weakening the body’s ability to fight pathogens. Very few studies have investigated links with Covid-19.
Philippe Grandjean of Harvard University led a study of 323 people in Denmark who were infected with the new coronavirus. That study, published last October, found that in the case of PFBA — a PFAS chemical that lodges in the lungs — even low levels were associated with more severe symptoms of Covid-19. Grandjean concluded that more work is needed on the topic, especially with people who have higher PFAS concentrations in their blood.
The new federal study intends to fill that gap and more, looking not only at Covid-19 but viral illnesses such as pneumonia and the flu. An agency spokesperson told Circle of Blue that the evaluation would include self-reported symptoms as well as illnesses confirmed by laboratory tests.
Another benefit to the study will be the sample size.  Over three thousand adults and nearly 800 children are eligible. If they all agree to participate, the sample size could be more than 10 times larger than the Denmark study. Schaider said that the more people enrolled in the study, the greater its statistical power for determining cause and effect between PFAS exposure and viral illness. As she put it, “having several thousand people as compared to several hundred people should be able to provide more information and assess those links more thoroughly.”
And that’s “What’s Up With Water,” from Circle of Blue, where water speaks. More water news and analysis awaits you at This is Eileen Wray-McCann – thanks for being here.