While friends and neighbors await test results and deal with the fallout of the water contamination in Kent County, one factor many people have used to determine their exposure to PFAS is the EPA health advisory level. Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency guidelines deem any amount of PFAS above 70 parts-per-trillion (PPT) as a health hazard. However, Politico is reporting that the government has blocked a study advising that the current EPA health advisory level is six times too high.
Earlier this year, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) was set to release its assessment of PFAS contamination of water supplies near military bases, chemical plants, and dump sites. The ATSDR recommended that the minimal risk level for PFAS be lowered to less than 12-ppt, based on its findings that exposure above this level "could be dangerous for sensitive populations like infants and breastfeeding mothers."
But despite the serious and alarming results in the ATSDR study, the report has yet to be released.
A “Public Relations Nightmare”
Leaked emails provided to the Union of Concerned Scientists shed some light on why the report has been blocked. In an email chain discussing the study, one anonymous White House aide allegedly expressed concern at the public backlash the government would likely face:
“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these new numbers is going to be huge. The impact to EPA and DoD is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”
Wolverine Worldwide, the company at the center of the contamination scandal in Kent County, has used PFAS counts above 70-ppt as the determining factor for providing whole-house filtration systems in homes with contaminated wells. Likewise, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality used the EPA level to set groundwater cleanup criteria.
If the safety levels for PFAS contamination were significantly lowered to below 12-ppt, as recommended in the ATSDR report, considerably more individuals could have cause for alarm. And, as the White House staffer predicted, the public outcry likely would be huge. But that is not a good enough reason to suppress this report, especially when exposure to high levels of PFAS can be life-threatening. Ignoring and burying this issue isn’t the solution. It’s what got us into this mess in the first place.