Concentrations of nonstick chemicals in Sandy Wynn-Stelt’s water wells are more than 1,000 times the Environmental Protection Agency’s health advisory level.
The concentrations of the chemicals in her blood—linked with high cholesterol, diabetes, cancer, and other health problems—are 750 times higher than the national average.
Yet no one can tell Wynn-Stelt whether those chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), will make her sick.
“You go through disbelief, dread, fear, anger, and feeling helpless,” the 59-year-old psychologist from Belmont, Mich., told Bloomberg Environment.
Those feelings spurred Wynn-Stelt into action. She decided to learn more about the chemicals and join forces with others who are demanding that state and federal legislators prevent more families from dealing with the stress of being “contaminated.”
The group of thousands of PFAS chemicals that brought these people together are used to give semiconductors, aerospace components, clothing, carpets, and food packaging valuable heat-, stick-, and grease-resistant properties.
Yet those same chemicals are increasingly found in the water, air, and soil, where they enter the food chain and eventually human blood and breast milk.
Information, Experiences Exchanged
Wynn-Stelt, along with Kyle Horton, a physician from Wilmington, N.C., and Andrea Amico, an occupational therapist and co-founder of a Portsmouth, N.H., group focused on the chemicals, were among the approximately 250 people who attended the Second National Conference on PFAS last week at Boston’s Northeastern University.
Academic and federal scientists shared recent or soon-to-be published research showing some of the chemicals can get into fetal brains; increase babies’ thyroid hormone levels, which play a critical role in human development; make vaccines less effective; and be released from firefighters’ protective clothing, thereby adding to their total exposure.
Hans Keijser, superintendent of the water supply in Barnstable, Mass., discussed how contamination of the town’s water by PFAS, 1, 4-dioxane, iron, and manganese prompted it this year to request bids for a $12 million project to upgrade the water treatment system using granulated activated carbon filtration.
The new system will enable the town to meet an expected change in Massachusetts’ limit for PFAS, Keijer said. The state’s current limit is 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for five PFAS compounds, he said. By the end of the year, however, the state is expected to lower that standard to 20 ppt, he said.
Wynn-Stelt, Amico, and other affected residents shared their stories with the researchers, congressional staff, trial attorneys, public health, and Department of Defense officials who attended. Two scientists from the Chemours Co., which faces dozens of lawsuits and millions of dollars in potential liabilities due to fluorochemicals it has produced, also listened and spoke with community members on the sidelines of the meeting.
No Clear Answers
Throughout the meeting residents shared their anxiety, outrage, and the guilt they feel about their children having been exposed.
For now, health officials can’t clearly say whether or how PFAS exposures may affect a particular person’s health, said Laura Anderko, a nurse and professor at Georgetown University.
People can and must be told how the PFAS concentrations in their bodies compare to the national average, said Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Toxicology Program.
Conversations at the meeting were designed to move the needle beyond where it’s currently stuck—with people learning that they’ve been exposed to PFAS, but not what that exposure means, said Amico, who helped organize this meeting and one that preceded it two years ago.
“We need this class of chemicals to be regulated,” said Jennifer Carney, also from Belmont, Mich. “We need to know their impact on our health.”
“Clean and safe water is a right, not a privilege,” said Decatur, Ala., resident Brenda Hampton, who runs a local organization providing bottled water to local residents who can’t afford to purchase sufficient quantities to replace their contaminated water supplies.
State, Federal Policies
People who have had their water contaminated with PFAS are part of the force that has driven House and Senate legislators to introduce more than 30 bills addressing PFAS this Congress.
That compares with about a dozen bills introduced in the previous Congress, and three in the one prior to that.
The policy provisions in those bills range from supporting more research on health impacts from drinking water, to requiring companies to report environmental releases, to banning the manufacture and sale of new forms of these chemicals.
Some of the bills could pass, Mae Wu, a senior director with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told conference participants. The sense of urgency members have heard from their constituents has led to lot of bipartisan bills, she said.
States, too, are likely to continue their efforts to control PFAS, said Sarah Doll, national director for Safer States.
California, Minnesota, and New Jersey are among states that have set enforceable limits for PFAS in drinking water that are tighter than the federal health advisory. EPA recommends that water utilities or individuals consider alternative sources of water when their drinking water exceeds 70 parts per trillion or more of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS)—or a combination of both.
The legislatures in 11 states debated or introduced policies to control these chemicals in 2018. That number jumped to 22 states in 2019, Doll said.
But state and federal bills to accomplish those goals aren’t enough, Wynn-Stelt said.
“Introduced bills won’t get me clean water or clean blood,” she said.
Pushing legislators to work across the aisle to require the EPA to regulate PFAS as hazardous substances, set formal drinking water limits, monitor drinking water sources, and prevent future contamination may eventually make a difference, she said.
Wynn-Stelt said that while corporations may try to influence lawmakers through political contributions, “my story is my currency.”
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