Worried about toxic ‘forever chemicals’ in drinking water? Blame the true offenders

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Camas was one of the first municipalities in Washington state to begin testing its municipal water system for evidence of harmful chemicals known per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). 

Commonly called “forever chemicals” due to the fact that they don’t easily degrade in the environment or inside our bodies, these man-made chemicals have been used for more than 70 years to create nonstick cookware, firefighting foam, waterproof clothing, household cleaners, carpets, takeaway food wrappers and containers, statin-resistant  upholstery and other fabrics and a wide range of personal care products, including nail polish, shampoo and dental floss. 

When Camas city employees discovered PFAS at levels above the state’s accepted levels in one of the City’s drinking water wells — Well 13 near Louis Bloch Park in downtown Camas — the City implemented the state’s required protocol, notifying water users and turning off the well during lower-demand months. 

In the meantime, city staff have been working on a plan that will assess the prevalence of these “forever chemicals” in the city’s drinking water system and try to come up with what the city’s public works director called a “roadmap” for not only treating impacted wells but also preventing the City from digging new wells that might also need to be treated for PFAS in the future.
Though the City also notified water users when it turned Well 13 on again during the high-demand summer months and again found PFAS levels over the state’s actionable levels, many community members expressed anger and frustration about the City’s handling of the PFAS notifications. Some even tried to turn the issue into a political talking point during the runup to the Camas City Council elections in 2023. 

We would argue that citizens concerned by the City’s PFAS discoveries are misplacing their anger and fears. 

Instead of shooting the messenger, Camas residents worried that there are “forever chemicals” linked to a range of health issues — including testicular cancer, high blood pressure, decreased fertility, developmental delays in children, kidney disease, insulin dysregulation, liver disease, altered thyroid function and other cancer — should direct their concerns toward right-wing politicians who have consistently accepted money from chemical lobbyists in exchange for tanking federal regulations on companies that are still producing and using PFAS in everyday household items.

As a Guardian investigation discovered in 2021, when it came to cracking down on PFAS, “U.S. chemical industry lobbying and cash defeated regulation” during Donald Trump’s years as president. 

“The seven largest PFAS producers and their industry trade groups tallied at least $61m in federal political spending during 2019 and 2020, the bulk of which was directed at lobbying Congress and the Trump administration instead of campaign donations,” The Guardian reported in April 2021. “Though industry has for decades known of the chemicals’ environmental and human toll, they continue sending PFAS to the market. Still, the untold billions in cleanup costs has largely fallen on the American public.”

Rules proposed by the EPA and Congress last session largely would’ve shifted the cost burden to industry, but chemical companies fiercely opposed the proposals and mobilized their lobbyists.”

In other words, thanks to Trump and his political supporters in Congress, the American people are not only still regularly being exposed to these toxic chemicals but we’re also on the hook for paying for their cleanup. 

Utility ratepayers in Camas, in fact, will be paying for the City’s PFAS treatment. The City joined a class-action lawsuit against PFAS manufacturers to hopefully recover some money to help fund its PFAS mitigations, but the results of those lawsuits are likely several years away.

Until then, people must realize the harms caused by Republican politicians who object to regulating industry or tightening environmental protections to the benefit of wealthy industrial leaders and the detriment of regular Americans, who just want to be able to eat food, drink tap water and breathe air that is safe and not contaminated by harmful chemicals. 

And the chemical lobbyists weren’t the only ones opposing PFAS regulations. As The Guardian also pointed out: “Though records show PFAS producers extensively lobbied the EPA as the rules moved, they weren’t alone. Industry found a powerful ally in the military, which likely opposed the rules because it could also be held liable for cleanup costs at least 400 bases, Woolford said. Meanwhile, Trump stocked the EPA with political appointees who previously worked in the PFAS industry, including an American Chemistry Council lobbyist, a Dow attorney and a Koch industry executive.”

Trump and MAGA Congressional representatives did substantial damage to PFAS regulations in this country. While the European and Scandinavian countries were proposing and passing legislation that phases PFAS out of European products and greatly limits the accepted level of PFAS allowed in drinking water, Americans were, during the Trump years, being led further down a toxic rabbit hole

As Politico reported in January 2021, “Trump’s EPA team overruled career scientists … to weaken a major health assessment for a toxic chemical (PFAS) contaminating the drinking water of an estimated 860,000 Americans.” 

Politico added that the changes to the PFAS regulations were yet another example of “the Trump administration’s tailoring of science to align with its political agenda, and another in a series of eleventh-hour steps the administration has taken to hamstring President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to support aggressive environmental regulations.”

Washington state, which is heavily controlled by Democratic officials, is on the forefront of a movement to regulate PFAS, but Republican officials in other states are still taking notes from Trump’s anti-environment, pro-industry playbook. Just last month, for example, Wisconsin’s Democratic governor called out that state’s Republican leaders for what he called a “breathtaking” refusal to take action on PFAS in Wisconsin’s drinking water of Camas is not alone in its push to find — and eventually treat — PFAS in its municipal water system and, from what we’ve seen, City officials and staff are not being secretive or trying to hide these findings. They have been willing to speak at length about PFAS with local media and regularly give updates on the City’s website, during public meetings and via public notifications.

To fully tackle the PFAS problem and other toxic environmental issues, we must agree to elect politicians who will turn their backs on chemical lobbyists’ money and act on behalf of the American people to hold industrial polluters accountable.