One of the most famous scenes in one of my favorite movies, A Few Good Men, is when Colonel Jessup tells Lieutenant Kaffee that he "can't handle the truth." That scene comes to mind as the public's fear about the many "forever chemicals" collectively known as PFAS continues to grow. Just last week, every resident of my own town received word 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 note. The possibility of bottled water is mentioned, though not the possibility that bottled water might also contain PFAS at the same or even greater infinitesimally small concentrations depending on its source.
As more and more communities find these forever chemicals in their drinking water, fear will continue to take hold among an already anxious general public, and that fear will find outlets, including the courts.
But the truth is that we don't yet know which of the many chemicals grouped together as PFAS are a real public health concern, or at what concentrations.
This morning Inside EPA is reporting on a meeting of scientists in North Carolina yesterday to discuss the best way to deal with the fact that we can now detect PFAS at parts per trillion but don't yet understand the risk associated with what we're detecting.
One approach is the Massachusetts approach -- to group together many chemicals based on their common persistence in the environment rather than based on any knowledge that they each present similar risks and then to set a standard that one is confident is low enough to ensure no adverse effects. But that isn't the only approach and EPA and most states are not yet taking it for the reasons discussed at yesterday's meeting, including the widespread fear, and significant expenses that can result. So far the big winners in states that are taking the Massachusetts approach are bottled water companies, engineering firms, and, of course, lawyers.
Hopefully EPA and the regulated community can accelerate their effort to understand the true 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 have to be able to handle the truth.
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