California is facing a huge crisis with its chemical contamination in the water supply. This crisis is not something that just occurred overnight; it started years ago. Chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been found in more than 600 wells across the state. These chemicals will affect many people who receive their drinking water from these sources. Furthermore, it is important to note that only a small fraction of water sources were tested which means that this is only a first step in what is likely to be a years-long effort. Since California is a huge state with many water resources, the contamination problem will not be resolved soon.
The chemical contamination in California’s water supply is affecting more than 7 million Californians and 74 community water systems have some amount of PFAS chemicals. PFAS are man-made chemicals that are used to make cleaning and anti-stain products. The two most common PFAS pollutants are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). The PFAS — which are also called “forever chemicals” — do not degrade in the environment and have a long half-life, which means that they do not decay. People consume PFAS all the time through food, water, cosmetics and food packaging. Very low doses of PFAS chemicals have been linked to increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver and thyroid disease and other health problems.
The negative health effects of PFAS should concern many policymakers and regulators, as there will be severe consequences if they do not take action to eliminate PFAS at a faster rate. Since PFAS do not break down or disappear, taking immediate action is the key solution. Policymakers and regulators, whose role is to serve the community and people, need to step up. They should create or revise policies to cater to the needs of the people and community. Their role is extremely critical at this moment in time to protect people’s health.
Regulations and policies to maintain an acceptable water supply are not strong enough to solve this crisis. California does not set maximum contaminant levels for the chemicals. There would be no way to determine what level of contamination would be considered unhealthy. California does not have a policy that requires companies to inform their consumers of any level of PFAS pollution, although a policy that will attempt to address this issue will be in effect starting next year. To confront this issue, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a policy and regulators are working together to set a standard. The policies should be strict so that companies will not be able to ignore it. Also, it is important to inform people about PFAS more often so that they can be aware and help contribute to finding solutions to the water crisis.
It is really disturbing to know that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not set a national standard for limiting the levels of PFAS in drinking water because they view it as an “emerging contaminant.” This is clearly not an “emerging” contaminant because, since 2013, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has tested for contaminants in drinking water sources. Instead of enforcing policy, they would rather recommend water utilities to notify the public if the levels of the chemicals reached a combined 70 parts per trillion. Currently, they are not obligated to notify consumers of any detection of the chemicals. This makes it more important that people are aware that these chemicals exist around them. Another fact that is alarming is that there are no restrictions on the release of PFAS into the environment nor is there any enforcement of cleaning up legacy contamination.
In the future, California will need to create stronger and stricter policies that will at the very least keep a large portion of PFAS pollutants out of our system and test regularly. People’s health is at stake and this should be alarming to everyone, especially policymakers and companies that release these harmful chemicals. This is a matter of moral and ethical values. It is important to inform people and companies more about the health and environmental effects of PFAS. This will allow everyone to pitch their ideas and come to a solution soon. Informing people of the negative effects and relating them to their health can force people to come together to propose a solution. The solutions could include boycotting products that have PFAS chemicals and possibly organizing a team of community members to clean up legacy contamination. Also, if there are enough voices for a proposal or change in policy regarding PFAS chemicals, the government may be pressured to place stricter measures on it. The water contamination crisis will not be resolved any time soon because it will take time to test resources and create policies.