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Can We Really Solve The PFAS Problem?

Dominic Hall-Thomas

Cecilia Blotto- Have you ever wondered how safe your drinking water is? Cities around the country are grappling with the logistics of a new regulation requiring all states to filter six types of so-called “forever chemicals” out of drinking water. These chemicals - called PFAS  - are found in everything from clothing, cookware, and even your takeout burger wrapper. And they’re linked to liver disease, birth defects, and multiple types of cancer.

Marine Saint- The city says, so far, the amount of these chemicals in the NYC water supply is below detectable levels, but that number is expected to rise as more stringent tests are introduced. So how will New York get a grip on the problem? Our reporter Dominic Hall-Thomas brings us up to speed on the impact this new regulation will have.

Dominic Hall-Thomas- Just off of Wall Street, the aisles of City Acres Market are stuffed with a rainbow of plastic packaging –green soapy liquids and rows of sponges line the shelves.

Hall-Thomas - So potentially there's hundreds of products here that might have these chemicals in. 

Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz- Yes, that's correct. 

Hall-Thomas- Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz is a lawyer with the environmental non-profit Earthjustice - his  focus is on Toxic Exposure

Kalmuss-Katz- So here you have a package of popcorn, laundry detergent, dental floss is over here 

Hall-Thomas- So you're going to pick up a pack of dental floss

Kalmuss-Katz- Yes, and dental floss because things are intended to be non-stick and have this sort of surface coating often that is PFAS.

Hall-Thomas- So, many of these toxic chemicals leak out as the packaging sits in landfill or during the production process. And they end up in our waterways, our bodies, pretty much everywhere

Kalmuss-Katz- They've been detected from the tops of Mount Everest to the depths of the ocean floor, they've been detected in rainwater, in food, frying pans, in raincoats, in a range of products. 

Hall-Thomas- And especially in drinking water. Now the EPA says cities will have to filter out six of the most toxic PFAS. But you can’t see, taste or smell them. That’s according to Gail Carson, an environmental and public health expert at Colby College in Maine  . And if they are found, the amounts they are looking for are miniscule! 

Gail Carson- They established a health advisory of four parts per quadrillion. I have never in all my years looking at toxic chemicals heard parts per quadrillion.

Hall-Thomas- Much smaller than other pollutants the city is used to testing for, like E.coli or lead.

Carson- A low parts per trillion level for PFAS is approaching the limit of detection with our current technology.

Hall-Thomas- Water utilities have until April 2027 to start testing for PFAS. They’re only required to test their water once a year but the city’s Environmental Protection Office says they test the water supply hundreds of times a day meaning they are keeping a close eye on what is in the tap water. 

New York city’s water filtration system is similar to the carbon filters you might find in homes but much larger and much more expensive. 

Carson- Now you do have to replace the filters all the time.  And that's expensive. The state's not going to keep paying for that.

Hall-Thomas- The EPA estimated that testing alone will cost the US Government $1.5 Billion a year. The EPA has however earmarked $1 Billion to help cover the costs. 

So who pays for the rest of the clean up? Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz, the lawyer from Earthjustice, says the companies who created the PFAS chemicals should be on the hook. And some of the biggest…DuPont, 3M, and Corteva, have already settled for billions which might help fund the new water testing requirements. . 

Despite these requirements to clean up drinking water, Kalmuss-Katz says new forever chemicals are being created and approved all the time. 

Kalmuss-Katz- We cannot continue to approve new PFAS at the same time we're scrambling to address the PFAS that are already out there in the environment. 

Hall-Thomas- It’s enough to leave environmentalists feeling deflated.

Kalmuss-Katz- Look, when you're in a hole, the first thing that you do is stop digging. 

Hall-Thomas- If PFAS production isn’t reduced, the need to filter the chemicals out will only grow. 

Dominic Hall-Thomas, Columbia Radio News. 

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