Biden must take action on PFAS

by Cathy Wusterbarth and Mike Shriberg

With a deadly pandemic, an economic downturn, the climate crisis and an urgent need for racial and economic justice, President Joe Biden already has plenty on his plate. But another cause demanding federal attention is turning up in people’s sinks and the nation’s waterways.

Toxic, fluorinated chemicals are present in as many as 1,500 drinking water systems across the country, affecting up to 110 million people. These hazardous, human-made compounds have a long and hard-to-pronounce name: Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. They have been linked to cancers, immune system disorders and liver and thyroid disease. And the presence of these compounds can render vaccines less effective against diseases including tetanus and diphtheria.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention using 2003-04 data found PFAS in the blood of 98% of participants.

PFAS are known as “forever chemicals,” because they accumulate, rather than break down, in the environment and in people’s bodies. Getting rid of them is notoriously difficult.

This stickiness is a feature, not a bug: The compounds were designed by chemical companies to be extremely durable and resistant to water, oils and heat. That’s why PFAS have been widely used for decades in common items like snow pants, pizza boxes and all kinds of cookware, cleaning products and clothing. They are also found in firefighting foams used at airports, refineries and military bases.

Resistance to efforts to address PFAS at the state level demands a federal approach. In Wisconsin, the state’s largest business group is suing state regulators for requiring businesses to sample wastewater at industrial sites for evidence of the chemicals.

Incredibly, there are currently no mandatory federal standards in place to limit the use of these chemicals, or to keep them out of our drinking water or surface water.  So now it’s up to Biden to act. Here are some things he can do:

◘ Instruct the EPA to set and enforce water protections from PFAS and other hazardous chemicals, using existing federal laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

◘ Follow through on his major investments in wastewater and drinking water infrastructure systems as part of his Build Back Better agenda. This is especially important for communities of color, rural areas and others often at greater risk from environmental problems.

◘ Instruct all branches of the U.S. military to move swiftly — with adequate funding and aggressive time frames — to clean up the contamination left behind by use of toxic firefighting foams.

There’s something wrong when so many people can’t count on a clean glass of water, or know that it’s safe to eat the fish they catch. With smart policy and sound investments, we can solve these problems now, instead of leaving a toxic legacy for future generations.

Cathy Wusterbarth, a registered dietitian, is co-leader and a founder of Need Our Water in Oscoda, Mich. Mike Shriberg, Ph.D., is regional executive director of the National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes office, based in Ann Arbor, Mich.