United States: When it comes to PFAS, can we handle the truth?
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One of the most famous scenes from one of my favorite movies,
A few good men, that’s when Colonel Jessup tells Lieutenant Kaffee that he “can’t stand the truth”. This scene comes to mind as public fear about the many “eternal chemicals” collectively known as PFAS continues to grow. As recently as last week, everyone in my own town learned that PFAS had been discovered in the town’s public water supply at a concentration that the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection considers worthy. of mention. The possibility of bottled water is mentioned, but not the possibility that bottled water could also contain PFAS in identical or even higher infinitesimal concentrations depending on its source.
As more communities find these chemicals forever in their drinking water, fear will continue to grips an already anxious general public, and that fear will find outlets, including the courts.
But the truth is, we do not yet know which of the many chemicals grouped under the name PFAS constitute a real public health problem, or in what concentrations.
This morning Inside the EPA report at a meeting of scientists in North Carolina yesterday to discuss how best to deal with the fact that we can now detect PFAS at parts per trillion, but do not yet understand the risk associated with what we are detecting .
One approach is the Massachusetts approach – to group many chemicals together based on their common persistence in the environment rather than on the basis of the knowledge that they each pose similar risks, and then set a standard of which one is sure that it is low enough to guarantee the absence of effects. But this is not the only approach and the EPA and most states are not yet taking it for the reasons discussed at yesterday’s meeting, including widespread fear and the significant expense that can result. So far, the big winners in states taking the Massachusetts approach have been bottled water companies, engineering companies and, of course, lawyers.
Hopefully the EPA and the regulated community can accelerate their efforts to understand the real risks associated with the many chemicals known as PFAS. In the meantime, we need to be much more transparent about what we do and don’t know about PFAS, and the choices we face. We must be able to deal with the truth.
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