Following the news in 2014 that Flint, MI was drinking from lead-contaminated pipes, there was about a month of righteous uproar from both Democratic and Republican politicians and multiple activist groups. The story dominated the news cycle. However, even though children and pregnant women were drinking lead-contaminated water, it took almost five years for the situation to be remedied. There are a few scientists who still fear that the bacteria content in the water may never return to normal. With this precedent laid, we continue onward.
Now, 43 US cities have tested positive for PFAS chemicals, or “forever chemicals.” You might recognize them as “per and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” or as chemicals from your carpet, fast food wrappers, shoes, microwaves and dental floss. What makes these chemicals so dangerous is that they can accumulate in the body over many years. As they accumulate in the bloodstream and body, they hold life-threatening consequences. PFAS chemicals raise a person’s risk of high cholesterol, a compromised immune system, cancer and, if pregnant, birth defects.
Out of the 44 cities tested, only one had no detectable PFAS. Through their use of deep well technology, Meridian, MS has managed to protect itself from groundwater contamination. Seattle, WA and Tuscaloosa, AL tested the next lowest in PFAS concentration. Our adopted hometown of Philadelphia tested positive for 46.3 parts per trillion. As a frame of reference, the EPA has advised that drinking water with more than 70 parts per trillion would have negative consequences on one’s health. Other states disagree: New Jersey placed its limit at 14 parts per trillion. Obviously, there is a large discrepancy between those numbers and that’s part of the problem. The health effects of PFAS chemicals have not yet been observed long enough for officials to confidently discern where the limits lie.
There were two cities that topped the charts in contamination. Quad City, Iowa had 109.8 parts per trillion, and Brunswick, NC had 185.9 parts per trillion. This is where the story grows disturbingly familiar to Flint. PFAS contamination can be limited with filters and installments onto one’s tap, but these systems are expensive and can cost anywhere from $100-$150. PFAS contamination can be fixed with a process called Reverse Osmosis, commonly referred to as RO. However, these systems are also very expensive to both install and maintain. One system can cost anywhere from $200-$2,000. Brunswick, NC is already one of the poorest areas in the country with a median household income of roughly $15,000. There is another example of an already disturbing pattern in American history of poor communities suffering disproportionately from environmental injustices. The pattern began with Love Canal, NY in the 50’s and holds strong through Chester, PA in 2020.
I realize that there are a lot of news stories begging for attention right now. I also realize that there’s not a lot that we can we as college students can do about the situation. But these news stories serve as little indicators of where our society is and where we are going. The least we can do is pay attention