“We are in trouble,” said Erin Brockovich. She leaned forward, emphasizing every word. “This is the biggest water crisis our nation has ever faced.”
She was visiting my hometown of La Crosse, Wis., to talk about drinking water, particularly, the dangers posed by the group of chemicals known as PFAS.
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a class of about 5,000 chemicals comprised of linked carbon and fluorine atoms. They have been widely used in manufacturing since the 1940s. The properties that make them so useful in products such as cooking pans, packaging, carpets, paints and firefighting foam, also are what prevent them from breaking down in the environment. They have become known as “forever chemicals.”
The list of places contaminated by PFAS is growing so rapidly that many experts think the only reason they have been undetected in many water supplies is that they haven’t yet been tested. Even states like Maine, which is largely rural, has significant PFAS contamination in private wells due to wastewater treatment plant sludge applied to agricultural fields for fertilizer.
One of the reasons contamination is so widespread is that the unsafe levels are so incredibly small. Most toxic substances that pose dangers in drinking water are measured in parts per million or parts per billion; PFAS is considered dangerous at levels measured in parts per trillion. Detecting PFAS is like finding a penny in the state of Texas.
Although all the adverse health effects of PFAS have not yet been determined, a number of studies link them to cancer, asthma, low infant birth weights and thyroid disease. They also are believed to compromise the immune system, affect liver and kidney function, decrease bone density in children, and cause fertility problems.
Yet, despite what is known about the dangers of PFAS and their prevalence in the environment, the EPA has not yet issued a regulatory standard. (They are scheduled to release their final determination in the fall of 2023.) To date, only a handful of states have established their own maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFAS.
That is why we need people like Brockovich to encourage the rest of us to step up and take action.
Brockovich has been an advocate for communities afflicted by groundwater contamination since 1991, when she first stepped foot in Hinckley, California. “I knew there was something wrong there,” she recalled. “I could feel it.”
The movie that made her famous came out in 2000, and she used that fame to expand her work, encouraging ordinary people to get informed and involved. “Don’t wait for the agencies and politicians to do it for you,” she says. Nobody is going to do it for you; you have to do it yourself.
Her most recent book, “Superman’s Not Coming,” takes up that theme. “I’ve noticed over the years that when I visit towns and work with people, the No. 1 thing everyone seems to need is permission. They are looking for someone to tell them that it’s OK to move forward.”
Well, it’s OK, she says. There are a number of things we can do, and we need to start doing them.
To protect oneself and one’s family, one can install in-home water filters that use either activated charcoal filtration or reverse osmosis to treat drinking water. These filters may not remove all contaminants, but they can reduce the levels considerably.
But that is not enough. Water is not a private good; it is a common good. It is our shared ethical responsibility to ensure that the water supply we collectively contribute to and draw from is safe for all.
We can start by requesting local authorities both test for and report the presence of PFAS in water supplies. If we don’t know what’s in our water, we can’t do anything about it.
We also should contact legislators to insist that PFAS be regulated as a class of chemicals rather than individually. Presently, only about 1 percent of PFAS chemicals have been studied for toxicity, and new versions of the chemicals are being developed, used in manufacturing, and finding their way into our food and water supply. Just because the specific health effects of the new chemicals have not yet been studied, there is no reason to suppose they are any less dangerous than older versions of PFAS.
When facing an overwhelming and complex problem like PFAS contamination, it is important to know what to do. But that is what human beings are really good at. We find solutions to problems. We investigate, we negotiate, we collaborate, and we commit.
In addition to figuring out what to do, we need to remember why we are doing it.
Brockovich confesses that a few years ago she felt burned out. There were too many communities asking for help, too many contaminants, too much need. And then her first grandchild was born.
Meeting her now, the first thing one notices is that she has the energy and passion of a much younger person, but she also has a gravitas she didn’t possess 30 years ago. She takes time to talk to everyone she meets, attending to them as if they are the only person in the room.
Brockovich’s message today is not just about water. Her message is about love — about genuine, heartfelt concern for the well-being of those most vulnerable to the downstream effects of our economy.
It doesn’t take Superman to act with love and concern. It takes you.