Commentary: Legislative action needed to protect drinking water

By Pam Miller
For The Cordova Times

On April 7, the state of Alaska Attorney General filed a lawsuit against the 3M Company, Dupont and dozens of other major chemical corporations. The lawsuit seeks damages for the harm to Alaska’s waters and lands caused by toxic PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. On the same day, Sen. Jesse Kiehl introduced Senate Bill 121, a bill that would require greater protections for communities in preventing and addressing PFAS contamination, including setting of enforceable drinking water standards for a number of PFAS as well as requirements for polluters to pay for safe drinking water and blood tests for people affected by PFAS contamination.

In Alaska, the dispersive use of PFAS-based industrial firefighting foams on military bases and airports has contaminated the drinking water of communities from the North Slope to Southeast Alaska. PFAS have been found at over 100 individual sites in nearly 30 locations across Alaska. Ten Alaska communities have PFAS in their drinking water at levels deemed unsafe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and it is likely that the number of communities with contaminated water will grow as more sampling is conducted throughout the state.

PFAS are a complex group of nearly 5,000 synthetic chemicals used in industrial applications such as firefighting foams and in household products including non-stick pots and pans, and for stain and water resistance in apparel, carpets, furniture, personal care products, and in food packaging.

Why should we all be paying attention? Because PFAS chemicals are highly persistent and toxic at exceedingly low levels of exposure. PFAS have been linked with harmful health effects including immune suppression, decreased fertility, kidney and testicular cancer, increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia, and increased risk of thyroid disease. PFAS can reduce the effectiveness of certain vaccines. Scientists have expressed concern that PFAS exposure weakens the immune system, and people with weakened immune systems are more likely to suffer worse outcomes from COVID-19.

Sadly, while the science tells us that PFAS are dangerous to human health, there are no enforceable drinking water or food safety standards either at the state or federal level. The latest peer-reviewed science indicates that drinking water standards should be 700 times lower than the guidance level of 70 parts per trillion set by the Environmental Protection Agency. This is dismaying and dangerous especially as the world grapples with a global pandemic.

PFAS are contaminating groundwater and surface waters, fish, wild game, garden produce and backyard chickens in Alaska. Several Alaska lakes are now closed to fishing as a result of PFAS contamination and yet there is no cohesive plan for testing of waters, produce, fish and wildlife in areas affected by PFAS.

In 2020, one Gustavus family had their backyard chicken eggs tested for PFAS contamination and they showed up as having extraordinarily high levels of 13,000 to 25,000 parts per trillion. The public water supply in Fairbanks and hundreds of private wells in the Fairbanks North Star Borough are contaminated with PFAS.

In 2019, Golden Heart Utilities in Fairbanks suspended all sales of its compost that has been sold annually for many years to local farmers and gardeners due to PFAS contaminants in the compost stockpiles. Recently, residents near Sand Lake in Anchorage are calling for testing of residential wells and lakes in the vicinity of the former Kulis Air National Guard Base where high levels of PFAS have been found.

Actions to address PFAS contamination in Alaska are long overdue. We are calling on state legislators to support and pass Senate Bill 121 this session as an urgent matter to protect the drinking water and health of Alaskans.

Pam Miller is a senior scientist and executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics and co-chair of the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN), a global network of over 600 public interest environmental health and justice organizations working in more than 124 countries. She was recently appointed to the National Academy of Sciences as a community liaison to develop guidance on PFAS testing and health outcomes.