PFAS and the Disconnect Between Scientists and Regulatory Agencies

About the Author: Kathryn Walker is a second year law student at American University- Washington College of Law. Kathryn graduated from James Madison University and hopes to work in housing law after graduating law school, specifically with tenants in Tidewater, Virginia.

What is the result when there is a disconnect between the opinions of independent scientists and the regulations put forth by federal agencies?

In January of last year, a scientific study was in the news in Charleston, South Carolina, which claimed “PFAS Contamination of Drinking Water Far More Prevalent Than Previously Reported.”[1] This post focuses on the study relating to and the news story covering Charleston, South Carolina, but Washington also ranks fairly high on the list of cities with the highest amount of these toxic PFAS.[2]

PFAS stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.”[3] They are a group of manmade chemicals which have been manufactured and used in a variety of industries around the globe since the 1940s.[4] They are sometimes called “forever chemicals” because they do not break down and can accumulate over time. There is evidence that exposure to these chemicals can lead to adverse human health effects.[5] They can be found in food, commercial household products, drinking water, and living organisms.[6] PFAS are used in the manufacture of stain- and water-repellent clothing, as well as non-stick cookware and common household cleaning products.[7]

The Environmental Working Group (EWG), the organization which conducted the 2019 study, holds that Americans’ exposure to PFAS is significantly higher than previous research by the EPA would suggest.[8] PFAS are widespread in rainwater and likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., especially those that use surface water.[9] The 2019 study claims that any level of PFAS above 1 part per trillion (ppt) is an unsafe level.[10] By that standard, only three of the 43 places tested by EWG had a safe level of PFAS.[11] Everywhere else, including D.C. and Charleston, were deemed unsafe.[12] EWG went on to admonish the EPA for not doing their due diligence in testing for and preventing these forever chemicals in the drinking water of metropolitan areas throughout the U.S.[13]

That all sounds very scary, but, as the study highlights, there is a disconnect between independent studies such as this one and the guidelines put forth by regulatory agencies like the EPA. The study makes it seem like this is a burgeoning health crisis that will affect a large amount of U.S. citizens, but that may not be true, depending on whose research and guidelines one follows.

Despite being numbers 10 and 12 on EWG’s ranking of testing sites by level of PFAS in water samples, respectively, Charleston’s level of PFAS in the drinking water is only 33.3 ppt.[14] D.C.’s is only 21.7.[15] This has caused some conflict between independent organizations like EWG and officials in cities like Charleston.[16] Charleston Water System Officials report that, “[PFAS are] toxic to the human body… But in very, very small amounts like in drinking water, you’re not going to have an issue at all.”[17] The EPA’s standard for a safe level of PFAS in drinking water is anything less than 70 ppt—both D.C. and Charleston are in the green.[18] Further, a Charleston-based news article explains, the EPA standard only tests for two types of PFAS; the EWG study causing all of that commotion was testing for thirty different chemicals and compounding them all together.[19]

So, who should people be listening to about what is safe, federal regulations or independent scientists? The validity of these two options could be argued either way. On one hand, people could say that independent scientists can’t be swayed by political pressure or power, and that they have no reason to lie about a budding public health crisis. On the other, they could say that organizations like EWG just want to win power and influence by mongering fear, and the EPA is a public service at its core, so they wouldn’t tell people something is safe when it isn’t. The result is the same for the concerned citizen: who do I trust, who’s right? The disconnect between parties such as EWG and the EPA—between scientific research and federal regulation—needs to be breached somehow, for the good of the public. It’s unclear whether one should inform the other or be disregarded in favor of the other, but these murky waters do nothing but scare people, unnecessarily or otherwise.

 

[1] Sydney Evans, et al., PFAS Contamination of Drinking Water Far More Prevalent Than Previously Reported, Environmental Working Group (Jan. 22, 2020), https://www.ewg.org/research/national-pfas-testing/.

[2] Id.

[3] Basic Information of PFAS, EPA (Jan. 14, 2021), https://www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas.

[4] Id.

[5] Id. See also Evans, supra.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Evans, supra.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Paola Tristan Arruda, Officials dispute new study’s claims of high chemical levels in Charleston’s water, Gray Television, Inc. (Jan. 27, 2020), https://www.live5news.com/2020/01/28/officials-dispute-new-studys-claims-high-chemical-levels-charlestons-water/.

[17] Id.

[18] PFAS, Water Quality Association, https://www.wqa.org/learn-about-water/water-q-a/pfas.

[19] Arruda, supra.

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