Poly- and Perfluoroalkyl Substances, more simply known as PFAS, are a family of chemicals used to manufacture stain-resistant, water-resistant, and non-stick products. PFAS is commonly used in many consumer products, including food packaging, outdoor clothing, ski waxes, carpet, and more. Additionally, many types of firefighting foam – mostly used by the military, fire departments, and airports also often contain PFAS.
Recent studies and media attention have shed light on the long-term health impacts of these chemicals. Some studies suggest exposure to PFAS increases cholesterol levels, reduces birth weight, reduces immune antibody response to childhood vaccines, and may increase rates of some types of cancers such as kidney and testicular cancer. One emerging exposure for humans is through contaminated drinking water as groundwater near areas with heavy PFAS use have been found to have high PFAS levels.
How much PFAS is safe? In 2016, the EPA established a health advisory level (HAL) of 70 parts per trillion. However, EPA has not yet adopted a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for PFAS, nor has the agency set federal drinking water standards for PFAS contamination as part of its PFAS Action Plan. Other states, including New Jersey, Minnesota, and Michigan have set their own standards MCLs for PFAS, each varied in recommendations.
Where is PFAS in Washington State? Three water systems test results have detected high levels of PFAS (Issaquah, DuPont, and Joint Base Lewis McChord). Further, many private wells near military bases were also tested by the Department of Defense (DoD) and were found to have high levels of PFAS. As PFAS is not yet part of the federal drinking water standard, the entire presence and extent of PFAS contamination in Washington is unknown.
State and local efforts. Since the EPA has yet to adopt MCLs, action must be taken by the state and local agencies to protect public health. The State Board of Health is currently in rulemaking to set a drinking water standard for PFAS in Washington. The Department of Health and Department of Ecology has engaged local, public, and private stakeholders to establish a PFAS chemical action plan. Local jurisdictions are actively participating in the rulemaking process and coordinating messaging and notifications. Tentative completion of the rulemaking process is early fall, 2020. Last August, the DoD also convened a task force to address PFAS contamination at military installations and surrounding communities.
With a desire from state and local agencies to address this issue, it is encouraging to see that PFAS is also a priority for the legislature. There are several bills this session aimed at reducing PFAS contamination and mitigating drinking water contaminated with PFAS.
SSB 6342 – Concerning chemical contaminants in drinking water.
SB 6619 – Concerning chemicals in drinking water.