The “Protectors” Have Failed Us

News From EWG’s First-Ever Virtual PFAS Conference

EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews unveils a revised map, showing close to 30,000 industrial sites that are known or suspected of releasing PFAS into the environment, including drinking water sources.

Yesterday, (July 14) our editor Suzanne attended the Inaugural PFAS Conference created by Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. We reference their wonderful research, often, here at The Brockovich Report!

While hundreds of folks attended live, we wanted to share some news and insights from the conference, in case you missed it.

Policymakers, scientists, and other experts all shared the latest developments on PFAS at the free, first-of-its-kind conference, including the impact of these toxic “forever chemicals” and what work is happening to address the harmful health impacts to human health and the environment.

Speakers included EPA Administrator Michael Regan, International Association of Firefighters President Ed Kelly, several key members of Congress working on PFAS, EWG staffers, our friend Rob Bilott, author of the book, Exposure: Poisoned Water, Corporate Greed, and One Lawyer’s Twenty-year Battle Against DuPont, and many more. It was amazing to see so many experts focused on this important issue and I want to applaud EWG for bringing so many voices together.

EWG president Ken Cook kicked off the live event with a welcome message, telling it like it is by saying, “Government officials charged with protecting us have failed us.”

They’ve Known For Decades

His sentiments were echoed in a prepared video from Mark Ruffalo, star of Dark Waters, the 2019 film that portrayed real-life attorney Rob Bilott’s fight against PFAS manufacturer Dupont. Ruffalo passionately shared how the companies who created these chemicals have known for decades that they are toxic to humans and the environment.

“Water utilities are not required to take out PFAS, even though the EPA has known for decades about the risk,” he said. “The DoD helped create firefighting foam, and knew it was toxic in the 1970s…. We know PFAS is building up in our blood and organs. Communities should not have to wait for clean-up. Who will pay if we fail to act? Real people are paying the price.”

Many government officials delivered prepared remarks throughout the conference and discussed plans to address PFAS contamination. It would have been nice to have more time for those from communities dealing with the impacts of PFAS to get questions answered or meet-up in some kind of community forum.

NEWS: Regulating PFAS As A Group

The timing for the conference could not have been better as states are grappling with PFAS concerns (see the news today from Maine) and the EPA announced earlier this week that officials will list the entire class of PFAS as a group as candidates for regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. This is big news!

In fact, Dr. Elsie Sunderland, a professor of Environmental Science and Engineering in the Department of Environmental Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, shared how we the fact that we are only measuring a small subset of PFAS compounds means that we are likely underestimating human exposure by a substantial amount.

Not only do we need to study PFAS as a group, but we also need to regulate it as a class and start to put fill in data gaps on the hundreds of chemicals that have gone largely unstudied.

Quick background: PFAS are the contaminants of concern right now. Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) are a class of thousands of fluorinated chemicals used in many applications from firefighting foams to medical devices to nonstick cookware and water-resistant fabrics.

Scientists have found two of the most known substances PFOA and PFOS in the blood of nearly all the people they tested in the U.S,. and Johns Hopkins University researchers have found that newborn babies are exposed to both PFOA and PFOS in the womb.

They are very stable compounds not easily broken down in the environment or in the human body, which is why they have been nicknamed “forever chemicals.”

Currently, we have no national enforceable national drinking water limits for PFAS, only healthy advisories, though some states have created their own regulations.

The Work Ahead

Also at the conference, Brenda Mallory, chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, who advises the president on environmental and natural resources policies that improve, preserve, and protect public health and the environment for America’s communities, shared, “We have a lot of work to do.”

In her role as chair, she focuses on addressing the environmental justice and climate change challenges the nation faces while advancing opportunities for job growth and economic development.

“If we lag on regulation, more people will be harmed,” she said. Adding that there are “many stakeholders at the state federal and local…. We are determined to make progress because people and communities are suffering.”

She also emphasized that the Department of Defense (DOD) needs to pick up their pace of work.

A June 2021 report from Government Accountability Office (GAO) showed the expected costs of cleaning up toxic PFAS at defense department installations will “likely increase significantly” beyond the billions of dollars already estimated. The report by the non-partisan GAO also confirmed that the Pentagon has made little progress cleaning up its most contaminated military sites.

New Legislation & Programs

California Senator Alex Padilla joined the conference live to discuss two key pieces of legislation he’s worked on and introduced to set more firm cleanup deadlines and make resources available for the cleanup efforts.

The Filthy 50 Act, would require remediation at 50 installations within five years, including 12 sites where PFAS detections exceed 1 million parts per trillion, or ppt, in groundwater.

The Clean Water For Military Families Act would require the DOD to conduct investigations and remediate PFAS contamination at and around DOD installations in the U.S. and state-owned National Guard facilities. It authorizes a one-time, $10 billion investment for PFAS investigations and clean-up to ensure military families can drink clean water.

Throughout the conference, excerpts from the new documentary No Defense, were also screened. The film looks at the PFAS contamination problem in Oscoda, Michigan, as a case study into how the U.S. military has failed to protect human health and the environment. You can watch the trailer here.

Another big announcement from the EPA was a new stewardship program aimed at removing PFAS from the marketplace approved through a loophole called the “low volume” exception.

The effort was announced by Dr. Michal Freedhoff, assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, who added that the agency is looking to develop a new PFAS testing strategy to fill data gaps about the substances.

Here’s hoping these new programs and bills can be approved quickly.

Hope for Firefighters

During a panel for firefighters, our friend Kevin Ferrara, a retired Air Force Master Sergeant and military firefighter, shared his story of exposure to PFAS from years of direct and indirect contact with Aqueous Film Forming Foam, otherwise known as AFFF (many call it A-triple-F), a product used by military and civilian fire departments to fight flammable liquid fires like aircraft fuel.

He and others on the panel discussed the importance of making medical monitoring more available to veterans. People shouldn’t have to get sick first before they get testing and diagnosis, as the companies who created these chemicals should help pay. Right now, veterans pay up to $700 out of pocket for PFAS testing and that needs to change.  

Later, Edward Kelly, president of the International Association of Firefighters, spoke very passionately about how PFAS has impacted the health of so many firefighters, including members of his family.

“If you’re lucky not to get killed, you will get cancer,” Ed said, adding that the research is clear that the chemicals detected in their gear are migrating into their bodies and making people sick.

“Our health and safety are non-negotiable,” he said. “The gear that is supposed to be protecting us is poisoning us…. We die for strangers. We will fight for each other.”

I know his words were a breath of fresh air for so many firefighters dealing with PFAS and his commitment to fight for them was inspiring.

Mapping The Impact

One other big announcement came from Dr. David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG, who released a revised map, showing close to 30,000 industrial sites that are known or suspected of releasing PFAS into the environment, including drinking water sources.

The sites include all kinds of industry including petroleum stations and terminals, chemical manufacturers, metal product manufacturers, paint and coating manufacturers, commercial printing facilities, and others.

EWG previously identified 2,501 facilities that were already reporting industrial dischargers to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, a federal database of toxic chemical releases by industry, and were known or suspected of discharging PFAS into air and water

When combined with landfills and sewage treatment plants, the number of sites that may be discharging PFAS exceeds 41,000, according to EWG’s analysis.

Both the public and regulators have been in the dark about potential sources of PFAS and this helps paint an alarming picture of how much PFAS is actually in our environment.

Again, it was great to see PFAS finally getting the attention it deserves. As Ken Cook summarizes at the end of the conference, the president has vowed to take action, EPA is in motion to set standards and regulate these chemicals, states are moving to ban needless use of PFAS, and Congress is working on new legislation.

Our job is to stay vigilant and keep the pressure on.

What are your thoughts on PFAS regulations? Sound off in the comments below.