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Summit Briefs Policy-makers on Drinking Water Safety

AAAS and National League of Cities address PFAS, chemicals linked to health problems

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North Carolina’s Cape Fear River contains high levels of several different per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, some known to pose human health dangers. | Nick Santillo

On February 7, the American Association for the Advancement of Science hosted a summit focused on a public health issue affecting virtually everyone in the United States.

At the day-long event, 23 municipal leaders from around the country met to share experiences and receive scientific guidance related to per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. A family of approximately 4,700 synthetic chemicals that are water-, heat-, and stain-resistant, PFAS are present in certain industrial machinery, consumer goods, and fire-fighting foams.

Though researchers have not established causal relationships between PFAS and adverse health effects, the two most studied compounds, PFOA and PFOS, are associated with increased rates of numerous ailments, including some cancers, thyroid disease, and high cholesterol. Between 2006 and 2015, American companies phased out the manufacturing of PFOA and PFOS, but it is still legal to import the chemicals in consumer products.

No federal regulations limit PFAS levels in drinking water systems, despite a 2007 study led by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that 97% of Americans had the chemicals in their blood. Though blood levels of PFOA and PFOS have declined by more than 60% and 80%, respectively, since 1999, current measurements by the CDC continue to find PFASin the serum of nearly all of the people tested.”

Thus, the recent meeting provided a much-needed forum for participants — mostly mayors, city council members, and water department managers — to learn from each other and hear experts’ advice on testing water for the substances and removing them.

Since its launch in September 2018, the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues, known as the EPI Center, has worked to deliver clear, concise, and actionable scientific evidence to policy-makers. Hosted in partnership with the National League of Cities, the meeting on drinking water safety concluded a series of three stakeholder summits organized by the EPI Center and supported by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

The previous two summits — the first on natural resources, sustainability, and energy and the second on addiction, artificial intelligence, and other issues that arise in legal proceedings — were well received and led to requests from participants for follow-up sessions.

“We are not advocating for particular policy outcomes, but we are trying to help policy-makers access and understand relevant scientific evidence as they grapple with these complex problems,” said Michael Fernandez, director of the EPI Center. “We understand that scientific evidence isn’t the only basis on which people are making policies; we just want to make sure that they have access to the most up-to-date scientific evidence to inform their decisions.”

Though scientists first discovered PFAS in the 1930s, initial understanding of their environmental persistence and potential health effects arose within the scientific community in the 1990s, and more widespread concern about drinking water contamination came only in the past decade.

While speaking to attendees at February’s PFAS summit, Patricia Reyes, director of the Interstate Technology Regulatory Council, a public-private coalition that communicates best environmental practices for states, recalled a 2016 meeting at which Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy addressed a group of commissioners representing most states. At the time, only a few of the commissioners raised their hands to indicate that they knew what PFAS was.

“The EPA administrator stood up and said, ‘I guarantee you, in six months, you’ll all know what it is,’” Reyes said. “And then she said, ‘It is also going to be the biggest environmental issue of our lifetime.’”

Left: A geologist with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy investigates steel drums for potential PFAS contamination. Right: A plasma reactor developed by researchers at Clarkson University removes PFAS from contaminated water. | Michigan EGLE; Selma Mededovic Thagard and Thomas Holsen/Clarkson University

PFAS contain extremely strong carbon-fluorine bonds that make them crucial components of many consumer products, including nonstick pans, water-resistant food packaging, and stain-resistant carpeting. Additionally, they are the key ingredient in aqueous film-forming foams, highly efficient fire-extinguishers used to fight fuel fires, most often on military bases and at airports.

“They were seen as miracle compounds,” said environmental engineer Michelle Crimi while presenting at the drinking water conference. “We wanted these things.”

Ironically, the same properties that make PFAS so useful in everyday items and potentially lifesaving in firefighting foams make them concentrate in animals and humans rather than break down in the environment. To prevent one of the most common pathways of exposure, municipalities must remove the compounds from drinking water before it reaches people’s taps. Crimi highlighted the latest research on different “methods of attack,” such as ion exchange, reverse osmosis, and a process that uses ultrasound waves to destroy PFAS.

Shaun Mulholland, city manager for Lebanon, N.H., attended the summit to learn more about the science of treating PFAS-contaminated water. Though Lebanon’s drinking water is clean, liquid leeching from the city’s landfills contains PFAS, and Mulholland is developing a test site to remove the dangerous compounds. He appreciated receiving scientific guidance tailored to decision-makers in his position.

“They did an excellent job,” Mulholland said. “I’ve spent quite a bit of time just researching things online. But they were able to explain it in a way that I could understand it, which was very, very helpful.”

Deborah Calvert, a city councilmember in Minnetonka, Minn., came to the summit with a more intimate understanding of the havoc that PFAS can cause than most attendees. At the time of the meeting, officials had closed six of the 19 municipal wells in Woodbury — like Minnetonka, a Twin Cities suburb — due to PFAS contamination. They have since shuttered a seventh. The St. Paul-based 3M Company is paying to build a filtration plant that would enable the city to reopen some of the wells, in addition to the $850 million it paid in 2018 to settle an environmental-damage suit brought by the state attorney general.

At the summit, Calvert mentioned cruises on Lake Minnetonka run by a University of Minnesota extension program, during which public officials and residents learn about chemical contaminants, invasive species, and other water quality issues. She was pleased that the meeting’s organizers were able to provide a forum for her and other officials to exchange such ideas.

“I wanted to know what they could do to help coalesce information for us, to share technical information more easily, which I thought they did an incredible job of doing,” Calvert said. “Also, learning what are other city officials grappling with around the country; there’s just no substitute for that kind of conversation.”