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They’re in stain resistant carpets and clothing, cookware, some cosmetics, outdoor gear, and even dental floss. You may know them as Teflon®, or Scotchguard®. You have them in your body and they’ve been detected in 455 California drinking water sources thus far. I’m talking about a class of fluorinated chemicals, called PFAS, and they threaten California’s water and its people. Why haven’t we done more about them?

nonstick pan with an egg in it

PFAS are a family of approximately 4,700 human-made chemicals that are incredibly effective at combating oil fires as well as repelling grease, water, and stains. Original PFAS chemicals, known as PFOS and PFOA, are linked to cancer, high cholesterol, birth defects, suppression of vaccines, and other serious health effects. While these two chemicals are being phased out, they remain in water supplies. According to independent scientists, newer versions of PFAS are toxic and equally persistent in the environment. Because PFAS chemicals are virtually indestructible, even if we stopped using all of them tomorrow, we would still have a permanent problem.

Attempts to disclose the presence of PFAS in food packaging were halted in the State Legislature last year, and, except for Senator Kamala Harris’ presence at one bipartisan US Senate hearing about PFAS in drinking water, California is absent from national responses to this issue. When decision makers are confronted with this problem, they respond with short-sighted interventions—such as regulating only PFOS and PFOA now. Addressing PFOA and PFAS alone will not adequately protect Californians, as these chemicals are simply being replaced with equally insidious versions.

Awareness about PFAS is growing around the country. Google “PFAS in water” and you’ll see horrific stories about chemical facilities, military bases, and other industrial sources of PFAS contaminating water and imperiling local communities in places like the Ohio River Valley, Hoosick Falls NY, and Cape Fear NC. This month, US EPA released a PFAS action plan that, given the urgency of the problem, does the bare minimum to address it. Thankfully, our actions to deal with PFAS in California are not constrained by federal policy. 

On March 6, 2019, I spoke at a State Water Board informational hearing about PFAS that included regulators, dischargers, and public advocates. It is time to build on the momentum started by the EPA PFAS plan and this recent water board hearing. California’s national representatives need to join the Congressional taskforce on PFAS, and call on the US EPA to aid states in their effort to address these toxic chemicals by developing more cost effective treatment options, greater detection capabilities, and more realistic health assessments. State legislators should promote greater transparency about PFAS in products, and restrict their use as a way of stopping the contamination at the source. A multi-agency task force should be convened to work collectively on the various impacts of PFAS contamination in all parts of the environment. The press needs to shine a light on PFAS contamination in our state. PFAS is already an invisible scourge in California—the amount of destruction it wreaks is up to us.

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