Drinking Water Safety Far From Assured

East Hampton is far from alone in dealing with the emerging health threat from a class of industrial chemicals used in firefighting and many other projects. Groundwater south and east of the town airport was found to be contaminated by perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. The compounds also have been found near MacArthur Airport in the Town of Islip and near Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach. These chemicals are persistent and toxic at very low concentrations, but the Environmental Protection Agency has issued only an unenforceable health advisory about the safe level in drinking water. 

Since PFOS and PFOA were identified here, the Suffolk County Water Authority has installed more than eight miles of water mains in Wainscott in a massive joint project with East Hampton Town. State inspectors from the Department of Environmental Conservation got involved, as well, identifying four possible sources of the dangerous groundwater pollution. 

Federal agencies are notably absent from the PFOS and PFOA problem, and Washington has not offered help to the dozens, if not hundreds of communities affected by potentially harmful drinking water. A so-called action plan released by the E.P.A. late last week did not promise any help with remediation and failed to set a hard and fast rule for maximum exposure. As a result, state and local governments and water authorities have had to go it alone.

Meanwhile, a House of Representatives committee is looking into whether the federal Centers for Disease Control might have quashed a report that indicated that some classes of the chemicals could be harmful at levels well below the E.P.A.’s current advisory level of 70 parts per trillion.

PFOS and PFOA are a national problem. Michigan began statewide testing last year and discovered that nearly 19 million residents have been drinking water with measurable levels of the chemicals, reaching 540 times higher than the E.P.A.’s safety advisory level in one community. Other contaminated sites have been found in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and upstate New York. Gov. Andrew Cuomo is said to be considering setting an aggressive state limit of 10 parts per trillion.

The chemicals’ effects in humans are not as well understood, though in 2005 an E.P.A. panel concluded that PFOA was a likely carcinogen. Other studies have indicated possible thyroid effects and suspicions about the chemicals’ role in heart disease and cancers of the prostate and pancreas.

Despite the known and suspected risks, Washington has not set any enforceable regulations for the entire class of chemicals. The prospect for action is dimmed by the appointment of Andrew Wheeler, a climate change denier and former coal lobbyist, to lead the E.P.A. Mr. Wheeler has been the acting head of the agency since Scott Pruitt stepped down. In the last half-year, he has weakened emissions rules for coal plants, taken on federal regulations protecting streams and wetlands, and he wants to roll back clean-air regulations for cars and trucks. Observers of the E.P.A. say they have their doubts that PFOS/PFOA will be regulated at all during the Trump administration.

Relying on the states to act is a pig in a poke. Only a handful so far have set drinking water standards for human exposure. This means that without federal limits, millions of Americans have no protections at all.