Soaring numbers of water systems around the country are testing positive for a dangerous class of chemicals widely used in items that include non-stick pans and firefighting foam, regulators and scientists said Tuesday.
The warnings, and promises by Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt of official action to confront the related health risks, came in a summit with small-town and state officials increasingly confronting water systems contaminated by the toxic substances.
Pruitt convened the conference as part of his pledge to step up EPA action on the family of contaminants. "It's clear this issue is a national priority," Pruitt said. The summit drew chemical industry representatives, tribal officials and others.
Emails made public under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this month and first reported by Politico heightened national attention of the chemicals. The emails included an unidentified White House official calling a still-pending federal study on the chemicals a "public-relations nightmare" and EPA officials intervening in the publication of the report.
The threat comes from thousands of chemicals in a family known as perfluoroakyls and polyfluoroakyls, or PFOA and PFAS, often used to make cloth, fast-food boxes and other surfaces slippery or resistant to grease or water. Scientists believe the chemicals can cause developmental defects and other health problems.
Patrick Breysse, head of the federal toxic substances agency involved in the still-unpublished federal study on the chemicals, said his office was called to its first case of public water system contamination from the chemicals only a decade ago.
Today his agency is working on dozens of sites contaminated with those chemicals, Breysse said. "Now it's a big part of our current portfolio," he said.
The nonprofit Environmental Working Group estimated in a new study that more than 1,500 water systems serving as many as 110 million customers across the country may be contaminated.
In February, in the town of Blade, Delaware, local authorities abruptly ordered the 1,200 residents to avoid drinking or cooking with water from their taps, after tests showed dangerous levels of the chemicals.
"I don't think anybody knew until this" that the compounds even existed, said Jean Holloway, who works with a Delaware nonprofit helping Blade residents deal with the contamination.
"Today's been eye-opening for me. It's even more pervasive than I realized," Holloway said.
The EPA will look at whether to establish a threshold for maximum allowable levels in drinking water, Pruitt said.
Pruitt also pledged to start the process of declaring those particular versions of the chemicals as hazardous substances. The step could allow the agency to make companies pay for releasing the pollutants into ground and water.
Lawmakers in a Senate hearing last week pressed Pruitt on release of the federal study with new findings on the toxicity of the chemicals.
Breysse said it would be released soon, but had no date.
Eric Olson of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that participated in the conference, urged the government to publish the findings, and urged officials dealing with discoveries of the chemical to be up front with the people at risk.
"When the public feels you're holding back, then the public starts not to trust you," Olson said.
Pruitt invited what the EPA said were 200 people to the session in Washington.
The EPA initially turned away some news organizations, including The Associated Press and CNN, who sought to cover the meeting. EPA spokesman Jahan Wilcox said the session was invitation-only and there was no room for the AP, but did not say what criteria were used in determining which news organizations the agency invited.
This AP reporter, who asked to speak to public affairs staffers before the conference began, was grabbed by her shoulders and pushed from the EPA building. This reporter did not attempt to force her way into the building or otherwise resist, and was not hurt.
The EPA subsequently opened afternoon sessions of the hearing to the AP and other reporters.