Amid Clean Water Act Rollbacks, a New Chemical of Concern emerges

A sign warns visitors to Rockford, Michigan’s Rogue River about exposure to its PFAS-contaminated waters. Photo: A. Hinterthuer

The health of U.S. waters are often steered in whichever way the political winds are blowing. In 2015, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, under leadership appointed by the Obama administration, expanded the definition of what waterways deserve federal protections, bringing many more wetlands and smaller waterways into the fold.

Yesterday, the Trump administration delivered on its regulatory rollback agenda as U.S. EPA administrator, Andrew Wheeler, announced that the Obama-era rules were being repealed and that the administration would begin to craft a new definition of which waters deserve federal protection.

As so often seems to be the case, the ruling pitted environment against economics. Developers, mining companies and many farmers no doubt celebrated the move – indeed, the announcement was made at an event at the National Association of Manufacturers headquarters – while environmental groups quickly announced they would challenge the rule change in court.

Water-testing lab in Plainfield Township, Michigan’s drinking water plant. Photo (& reflection) A. Hinterthuer

Lost amid the constant push and pull of these debates, however, is the very real need for protections when it comes to our water supply.

In just the past five years, toxic algal blooms have shut down the drinking water system in Toledo, lead has poisoned the water supply for residents in Flint, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, and nitrates from farm runoff have contaminated rural Iowa wells. And note that all of this was under the watch of a U.S. EPA working to expand protections for waterways.

Now, amid these Clean Water Act rollbacks, a new chemical of concern is on the scene – PFAS.

PFAS refers to a whole group of chemicals that are used in all sorts of manufacturing processes and consumer goods. You know them as the Teflon that keeps food from sticking to your cookware, or the Gore-Tex that keeps your hiking boots dry, or the Scotchguard that repels stains on your sofa. (Or, if you live in Madison, as the ingredient in fire-fighting foam that contaminated Well 15).

PFAS have also been linked to a host of health problems, from suppressed immune responses, to high cholesterol, to increased cancer risks. What’s more, once PFAS gets in to our environment, it’s there to stay – they’re often referred to as “forever chemicals,” because they don’t break down. There are also extremely mobile and can easily be carried into groundwater supplies.

There are anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 PFAS chemicals out in the world – it’s hard to know how many because companies don’t disclose the proprietary information of their “recipes” and, currently, the U.S. EPA doesn’t regulate PFAS chemicals.

A group of reporters hear about how the Plainfield Township water plant is removing PFAS from its water. Photo: Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources

If you’re wondering why you may not have heard about PFAS, a lot has to do with both how difficult they can be to detect and how little they are regulated. The U.S. EPA currently only has voluntary guidelines for PFAS levels in drinking water and most states seem to be content to simply not look for problems. But that could be about to change. The EPA is currently working on developing regulations on PFAS and is in the midst of Congressional hearings. The state of Michigan, amid some very high-profile cases of PFAS contamination in public water supplies, recently unveiled their own PFAS regulations in drinking water that were far more restrictive than the U.S. EPA’s guidelines.

And, here in Wisconsin, where the political winds have recently shifted, so has the state’s approach to PFAS. Where the Walker administration slowed the state’s response to emerging drinking water contaminants invoking the ire of environmental groups, the Evers administration labeled 2019 the “Year of Clean Drinking Water,” and is actively working on PFAS regulation that could be among the most restrictive in the nation – which does not sit well with industry groups like Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.

In reality, of course, we live in a world where environmental regulations and economic development aren’t mutually exclusive. They are both necessary parts of our quality of life. But, as we are just scratching the surface of the scope and seriousness of PFAS contamination in our drinking water, the current climate of environmental rollbacks is cause for concern.

If you’d like to learn more about Wisconsin’s response to PFAS, join us on Wednesday, October 2nd, for the fall kick off of Science on Tap-Madison. We’ll hear from Christy Remucal, whose Aquatic Chemistry lab is researching PFAS at UW-Madison, and Mike Shupryt, from the Wisconsin DNR’s Bureau of Water Resources. See you there!

More details on Science on Tap-Madison here: