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Alaska must tackle water quality issues

Community Perspective

FAIRBANKS — On May 22 and 23, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) held a “Leadership Summit” in Washington, D.C., about PFAS contamination in drinking water.

PFAS are a class of chemicals, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (collectively, PFAS), that are extremely persistent and toxic. Many Fairbanks residents are affected by contamination of their drinking water caused by dispersion of aqueous firefighting foams in groundwater plumes from Eielson Air Force Base, the Regional Fire Training Center, the Fairbanks International Airport and Fort Wainwright. And this is just the tip of the iceberg for Alaska. PFAS contamination in drinking water now affects over 16 million people in 33 states.

Patrick Breysse, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health, described the contamination of drinking water by PFAS chemicals as “one of the most seminal public health challenges for the next decades.” 

Community members affected by PFAS contamination were excluded from the EPA Summit that included primarily government officials and the chemical industry. Reporters were also largely excluded; one reporter from the Associated Press was forcibly removed (though allowed back in later). Just the week before, news broke that the White House and EPA deliberately suppressed a government study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that found that EPA’s recommended health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion for PFAS chemicals to be as much as six times too high. A White House official stated that the release of this assessment would be “a public relations nightmare.” The report indicates that levels of these chemicals that EPA previously thought to be “safe” may cause harm.

The EPA has delayed regulatory action for decades on these dangerous chemicals. Neither the EPA nor Alaska have established enforceable standards for drinking water. Although some people who have levels of PFAS in their water at levels greater than 70 ppt are provided with an alternative water source, those with levels even slightly below that threshold are afforded no safety for their families even though exposures at much lower levels are known to cause harm to human health.

The scientific literature provides extensive evidence that PFAS are linked to serious diseases at exquisitely low levels of exposure. Epidemiological studies demonstrate that PFAS exposures are associated with kidney and testicular cancer, decreased birth weight, thyroid disease, decreased sperm quality, high cholesterol, pregnancy-induced hypertension, asthma, ulcerative colitis and decreased response to vaccination. And, increasing evidence indicates that infants are especially vulnerable and receive higher exposures than adults, with lifelong consequences.

In the absence of federal action, other states are taking strong measures to protect the health of their residents by cleaning up current contamination, establishing health protective drinking water standards, taking legal action against manufacturers and preventing future pollution by requiring the use of PFAS-free firefighting foams.

Alaska is mired in inaction, ostensibly awaiting federal “advice.” Stacey Cooper, representing the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, stated in a recent interview: “So no, there’s nothing official that the state is doing. You know, we’re looking at studies and we’re trying to understand the situation ourselves, but at the moment, we’re just waiting for national advice.”

Noting the $3 million that the city of Fairbanks has already spent over the past couple of years to help residents affected by PFAS contamination, Fairbanks City Councilman David Pruhs called upon the staff to develop a plan within 90 days to address how the city will respond to the increasing problems associated with the contamination of drinking water sources.

In the meantime, our state’s inaction is costly and causing harm while people continue to be exposed to dangerous levels of pollution in their drinking water. It is time for the state to fulfil their obligation and take leadership to protect the health of Alaskans.

Pamela Miller is executive director of Alaska Community Action on Toxics (ACAT).

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