Why we can’t keep going with the flow: PFAS and our water supply | Earth Day Network

By Katie Wood

I’m no water connoisseur, but I do know that not all water is equal. It’s not just the taste — and yes there is definitely a taste — but I also know when I’m drinking water out of a tap it’s not pure hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Tap me in

This is very normal. Most of our tap water has a mixture of about 13 elements in the periodic table in varying degrees, which I am A-okay with. We need these nutrients, and our water is a good place to get them.

Here’s what I’m not okay with: harmful metals and chemicals getting into my water supply. This happens from time to time — like in Flint, Michigan, in 2014, where hundreds of people were affected by lead poisoning.

This is still an issue today, by the way. Although Flint’s taken measures to purify their water and the Environmental Protection Agency says it’s good to go, scientists haven’t been allowed to conduct proper research on it, and residents still don’t know who to trust.

And this wasn’t an isolated event. Newark, New Jersey, is still dealing with its lead crisis, and about 5.5 million people drink water that is above the EPA’s Lead Action Level, according to the NRDC.

I comfort myself with the knowledge that I’ve lived in good areas with purified water, with no harmful chemicals lurking in it. Our best people at the EPA would have told me… Right?

Tap me out

After reading the book “Exposure” by Robert Bilott, I’m not so sure. Back in the 1990s Bilott, an environmental lawyer who worked to ensure chemical companies followed federal regulations, received a call from Parkersburg, West Virginia.

This call was from a farmer, Wilbur Tennant, whose livestock were dying at alarming rates. By the time Bilott first visited Tennant, more than 130 cows had perished. These cows had been drinking water that had also had waste runoff from the chemical company Dupont, and their dissections revealed something that should concern all the residents of Parkersburg: The cows’ deaths were not natural.

The culprit? Parkersburg’s drinking water.

It’s been about 20 years since this incident, which is detailed in an outstanding New York Times Magazine piece by Nathaniel Rich, and today the chemicals eventually found Parkersburg’s water still linger in water supplies across the country.

These chemicals have many names, but PFAS encapsulates most. According to the EPA, Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are man-made chemicals that do not breakdown, thus earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” Forever chemicals are great at repelling oil, grease and water, and are found in Teflon, food containers, water-proof materials and much more.

The problem is that these forever chemicals aren’t only in useful materials — they’re in us, and as their namesake suggests, they’re not going anywhere.

So, what’s the problem? Other than chemicals entering my body without my knowing, there’s something deadly under the surface: These substances have been linked to increases in cancer rates, thyroid problems, immune system deficiencies and low birth weights.

Cut one off, two more grow back

Robert Bilott’s story didn’t end at Tennants farm. For the last 20 years Bilott has fought chemical manufacturing companies that knew the chemicals they released into our environments were indeed toxic. And if that wasn’t enough, Bilott’s work even alerted the EPA that the infiltration of PFAS in our water supply was a problem.

Okay, so now that the EPA knows about it, we’re done here… Right? Well, not so fast.

The way these chemicals are created make our problem like a Hydra, the mythical creature whose heads grew back two-fold each time one was cut off. Once we come up to speed and regulate one chemical, companies switch it up and release a new version that they can rename, the newest being GenX, for which there are currently no standards set by the EPA.

And since the EPA only regulates about 90 chemicals in drinking water — despite more than 120,000 chemical compounds, pharmaceutical products and plastics in existence — the agency is unlikely to catch up any time soon.

A hulk of a problem

If we’re going to talk about mythical creatures now, then we may as well bring in the Hulk, too. Or just the actor that plays him. Mark Ruffalo, best known for his roles as the Incredible Hulk in Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise, is drawing attention to this issue. His latest film, “Dark Waters,” details Robert Bilott’s decades-long fight to get these chemicals out of our environments and our water.

“Dark Waters” was released in U.S. theaters this week, ensuring that mass audiences are given the opportunity to learn how these “forever chemicals” harm our bodies and ecosystems.

The film has also created opportunities for advocacy organizations to share in the spotlight as well. Emily Donovan, a representative of  Clean Cape Fear, which advocates for those effected by PFAS shared the stage with both Ruffalo and Bilott at a Washington Post Live event last Tuesday and later testified in front of congress.

Having heard these people speak about these issues, I have hope. Someone is doing something and empowering others to do the same. Donovan said it best at the Washington Post Live event: “We have an actor, a lawyer and a Sunday school teacher here today. So, if we can do this, you can too. You have that power.”


Katie Wood is the conservation and biodiversity manager at Earth Day Network.