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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Parts per Trillion
distributed 8/25/17 - ©2017

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

I'll start off today with a very simple math quiz. Which number is larger: 70 or 33,000?

Answer: 33,000 is about 470 times larger than 70.

The next question: why are these numbers important? Answer: they have to do with water pollution in some towns near Colorado Springs. These are very important numbers for people who get their drinking water from contaminated sources.

In January, 2016, the water supplies in Fountain, Security and Widefield, Colorado, were found to be contaminated with perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). The Environmental Protection Agency had issued a health advisory for these kinds of chemicals, warning about any measurement over 70 parts per trillion (ppt). Can you guess what the contamination levels were? Yup -- measurements went as high as 33,000 ppt for some water sources, and up to 1,300 ppt in the drinking water. The EPA had called on water systems to report any measurement over 40 ppt.

The three towns have scrambled to reduce the health risks. Bottled water was provided to residents. Contaminated wells were shut down. Huge, complicated and expensive filters were installed -- and have proven to be only partially effective.

The PFC pollution came from the nearby Air Force base, where the chemical is part of a foam used in fighting fires. Apparently, the USAF teams do a lot of practicing on jet fuel fires, at Peterson Field and at some 200 other US bases that are under investigation.

After a year and a half, the towns are struggling with many millions of dollars in unanticipated costs, and the Air Force claims that it does not have the authority to provide reimbursements.

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The PFC pollution in Colorado is a revealing case study about a larger issue. Our environment and our bodies are filled with unregulated and untested chemical compounds. Many of those chemicals are believed to have significant health risks, even at trace levels.

The pollution near Colorado Springs came from large amounts of fire fighting foam. But PFCs in lesser amounts are all around us. They are the foundation of non-stick Teflon, and the waterproofing for Scotchguard and GoreTex. They are found in shampoo and cosmetics. For more than three decades, PFCs were used in fast food packaging (and microwave popcorn bags), to keep grease from soaking through paper wrappers. In 2016, the Food and Drug Administration banned the use of PFCs in food packaging. The replacement paper coating now being used by several food chains, though, is chemically similar, and nobody knows what sort of health risks might be found from these largely untested chemicals.

PFCs are considered to be "persistent" compounds, because they do not break down readily, either in bodies or in the environment. PFCs bio-accumulate, attaching themselves to proteins in the bodies of humans and other animals. Exposure through water, fabrics, or food packaging can build up long-lasting and hazardous levels of the pollutants in our bodies.

The health effects of PFCs are not well known. Within that broad class of chemicals, there are many distinctive compounds (including PFAS, PFOS, PFOZ, PFHxS and PFNA), each of which have different impacts. An agency of the US Department of Health and Human Services says that PFAS may:

  • affect the developing fetus and child, including possible changes in growth, learning, and behavior,
  • decrease fertility and interfere with the body's natural hormones,
  • increase cholesterol,
  • affect the immune system, and
  • increase cancer risk.

PFCs came into widespread used in the 1950s, and became pervasive through five decades before they were recognized as potentially dangerous. They are now all around us, in our cookware, clothes, carpets and cosmetics. They contaminate soils, streams and aquifers, where they are essentially impossible to remove. And PFCs are just one of the many hazardous chemicals that are produced.

The astonishing way that industrial chemicals are managed in the US was described in an extensive article about the Colorado water pollution, quoting a New York Times report.

Under the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, the EPA can test chemicals only when it has been provided evidence of harm. This arrangement, which largely allows chemical companies to regulate themselves, is the reason that the EPA has restricted only five chemicals, out of tens of thousands on the market, in the last 40 years.

"Innocent until proven guilty" is a great principle for criminal law, but it makes no sense for complex chemicals. By the time there is "evidence of harm", those chemicals are embedded in countless products and distributed widely in the environment. US laws and policies essentially guarantee that toxic substances will be developed and used.

The lack of restrictions is long-standing, and bipartisan. Huffington Post reports,"Over the past 20 years, no new contaminants have been added to those regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act." PFCs still are not regulated. The EPA advisory only suggests levels that might be considered safe, and does not require any sort of clean up when pollution is found.

I can't imagine that the current US administration, which seeks to cut regulations wherever possible, will do anything to establish more comprehensive testing and oversight of industrial chemicals. At this point, protecting your health requires being an informed and cautious consumer, but that defensive approach only works when a chemical has been identified as risky, and when you know the sort of products where it might be used. There's no protection for unknown risks, for unlabeled ingredients, and for chemicals dispersed in the environment.

I don't have a call to action today. I'm telling you this disturbing information as an illustration of how our modern culture -- enamored of new gizmos and new possibilities -- is all too eager to embrace products without carefully evaluating their impacts.

As we seek to turn toward a just and sustainable world, the example of PFCs illustrates the need for a strongly precautionary approach. May we be thoughtful and careful about the world that we're creating.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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