In towns and cities across the United States, Americans’ tap water is contaminated with so-called forever chemicals – and some are forced to live off bottled water.
PFAS – short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals – are the man-made heat- and water-resistant chemicals used for decades to make everyday items like nonstick pans, food containers and fabric protectants. Studies have linked PFAS to kidney and liver cancer, thyroid problems, high cholesterol, birth defects and pregnancy complications. They’re called “forever chemicals” because they don’t easily break down in the environment or the human body.
A tally by the clean water advocates at the Environmental Working Group shows 712 locations in 49 states have been discovered to be contaminated – including public water systems, military bases and airports.
Federal government scientists believe PFAS chemicals are in the bloodstreams of nearly all Americans, and the Food and Drug Administration warns the contamination crisis threatens the US food supply.
There’s growing alarm, including from health advocates and members of Congress, that federal regulators have not acted aggressively enough to protect the public.
The Obama administration created only an advisory level with no enforcement teeth and the Trump administration has promised to soon determine a maximum safe level for drinking water. Public health advocates, however, have been dissatisfied with the administration’s action plan – saying they had expected the administration to unveil actual actions rather than promises on paper.
“I think they’re solely devoted to deregulating, to repealing public health protections, not putting any new ones on,” Betsy Southerland, a former Environmental Protection Agency employee who oversaw the water office, told CNN. “We have a hope that Congress will actually force EPA to act and act quickly.”
‘This will be what ultimately kills me’
Sandy Wynn-Stelt lives in Belmont, Michigan, where the groundwater has some of the highest levels of PFAS in the nation.
She showed CNN documentation that indicates blood tests have revealed very high levels of the chemicals in her body. In 2017 she learned the groundwater that flowed to her private well was contaminated with PFAS.
“There’s a good chance this will be what ultimately kills me,” Wynn-Stelt said.
The groundwater was contaminated by a nearby shoe factory, Wolverine Tannery, which dumped waste materials covered with Scotchgard for years, according to state officials.
Now Wynn-Stelt says she uses bottled water for nearly everything.
She is suing Wolverine, and 3M, which makes Scotchgard, over her contamination and the death of her husband, Joel. He died of liver cancer in 2016, a year before she found out the water was tainted. (The state of Michigan is also suing Wolverine, but not 3M.) Unlike Sandy’s, Joel’s blood was never tested for PFAS, so no one knows how much of the chemical was in his body and whether the chemicals in their water caused his liver cancer.
“Every night, you try to fall asleep and you wonder, is that what did it?” she said. “Should I not have had him drink so much water?”
In a statement to CNN, the company said: “Wolverine has been sued by some area residents and is vigorously defending against these claims, many of which include misleading and unsupported allegations made by plaintiff’s attorneys. Nevertheless, Wolverine’s commitment to helping our friends, family and neighbors address water quality issues in the area has never wavered, and we have dedicated over $35 million to providing water solutions and conducting remediation.”
In addition, Wolverine is suing 3M, which it says “knew for years that PFOA and PFOS posed environmental risks.”
A spokesperson for 3M told CNN that it “regularly and proactively examines the environmental impact of our products” and has “invested more than $200 million globally on PFAS remediation efforts.”
“Technological advancements in the late 1990s made it possible to detect certain PFAS compounds more accurately and at much lower levels than ever before. We understood that these levels had the potential to build up in the environment, people and animals over time. In response to this evolving knowledge, we phased out of PFOS and PFOA production globally in the 2000s, long before any of our competitors,” the company said. “Our materials today do not carry the same potential to build up as our former products.”
Michigan state officials say they are aggressively working to identify all the contamination sites. They’re testing waterways and fish with the goal of setting legal limits for allowable amounts of these chemicals in the environment. Michigan’s Department of Environment anticipates that limits on seven PFAS compounds for water will be set by April 2020.
States like Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Vermont are moving ahead to set their own standards, over frustration that the EPA has not moved aggressively to regulate PFAS.
An underground threat
New Mexico dairy farmer Art Schaap has been milking his 1,800 cows every day for nearly a year – and every day he dumps it all down the drain.
His milk is contaminated with PFAS, according to Food and Drug Administration tests. Because the chemicals are present, the New Mexico Department of Agriculture suspended his milk license.
“We have no income. For our family it’s been devastating,” he said. “I’ve been in the dairy business for 30 years and I worked my whole life for this.”
Schaap says he dumps about 12,000 gallons of milk daily.
He says military officials first found the contamination on his property.
Tests show an underground “plume” has moved to his wells 2 miles southeast from the base, he said.
Firefighting foam used in training exercises at the nearby Cannon Air Force Base contaminated the groundwater with PFAS.
In a statement, a Defense Department spokeswoman said: “The department is committed to taking a strong stance to address the effects arising out of any releases of PFAS from all defense activities,” adding that the department has established a “PFAS task force to ensure that it is approaching the problem in an aggressive and holistic way.”
A nationwide problem
PFAS contamination sites are everywhere.
Manufacturers like 3M and DuPont have stopped making two of the chemicals in the class, but they’re still shipped in on products from overseas.
Meanwhile, health and environmental advocates are dissatisfied with the pace of government action.
In 2002 and 2007, the Bush administration placed restrictions on some PFAS chemicals, many of which were no longer in use at the time.
The EPA under President Barack Obama then issued a guideline limit for safe exposure to PFAS that some saw as a precursor to a legally binding and enforceable limit. The Obama EPA also proposed requiring that any new use of PFAS-type chemicals and PFOA-related chemicals be approved by the EPA, but the Trump-led EPA has not put this rule into effect.
The agency did put out an action plan outlining how it would deal with the issue in February.
“To imply members of EPA leadership are not committed to addressing PFAS is just ridiculous and completely false,” the EPA said in a statement to CNN. “Taking action to address per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) is a top priority for the Administrator, EPA leadership and the entire agency.”
Earlier this year, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler was asked at a Senate hearing whether he could commit to establishing a drinking water standard for PFAS in the next two years.
“I can’t make that commitment because it’s in interagency review at this point,” he said, referring to the action plan, which was then undergoing review by other parts of the executive branch.
Southerland, the former EPA official, said the action plan is a “huge disappointment” and that the agency wasted time when it could have taken action – such as setting enforceable limits – instead of creating the plan.
“I think right now they’re just not moving forward. It is just not a priority for action,” she said.
Internal government emails, obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, show the Trump administration wanted to suppress a government study that indicated the chemicals were dangerous even at levels the EPA had deemed safe.
A White House aide wrote in an email that they could not get the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”
After mounting public and congressional pressure, the study was released in February. The CDC report showed the safe limit for the chemicals should be seven to 10 times lower than what the EPA said was safe, according to the Environmental Working Group, which analyzed the data.
Despite that, there is bipartisan frustration with EPA on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle saying the agency is not moving with enough urgency on this issue.
Congress is now pushing toward legislation that would force the EPA to set legally binding limits on these chemicals in drinking water in two years.
Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-West Virginia), Tom Carper (D-Delaware) and John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) introduced legislation that passed the Senate. The House passed a similar measure, and a version could be added to the 2020 Defense Department authorization bill.
CNN’s Michael Conte, Sara Weisfeldt, Jonathan Schaer, Jeremy Diamond and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.