Drinking water and food – two essentials for life - should never contain toxic chemicals that can make us sick. Unfortunately, toxic nonstick perfluorinated chemicals are contaminating the state’s drinking water, food, and people. This serious public health threat requires swift action from Governor Inslee.
Found in everyday products like microwave popcorn bags and stain-resistant furniture, as well as in certain firefighting foams, perfluorinated chemicals (PFAS) have long been appreciated for their ability to keep us dry, stain-free, and grease-free. But experts are now raising concerns about their widespread use and health impacts, which include cancer and low birth weights. Often called “virtually indestructible” because they do not break down in the environment, PFAS chemicals are entering our lives where they shouldn’t be.
Recent testing found PFAS contamination in drinking water from several Washington communities, including Whidbey Island, Issaquah, and, most recently, the Spokane-area community of Airway Heights. In these cases, the contamination most likely came from use of firefighting foams used to put out oil fires. Local officials have been forced to close wells, provide bottled water, or install expensive million-dollar filtration systems.
Firefighters’ health is also at risk when they use PFAS-containing firefighting foam. Firefighters already have a higher risk of cancer because of on-the-job exposures to burning chemicals. Adding exposure to PFAS chemicals in firefighting foam is unacceptable.
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We are also learning that everyday products such as food containers are also sources. PFAS-coated fast food bags, bakery papers, microwave popcorn bags, and french fry boxes are common. Food can become contaminated when the chemicals escape from the packaging and contact the food.
When toxic PFAS chemicals threaten our food, water, and health, Gov. Inslee must act to keep our families safe. We are encouraged by the state’s initial response to the drinking water contamination, but we need more action to protect health.
First, the governor and the Department of Health must begin the process for issuing drinking water standards. The state does not currently limit the chemicals in drinking water. Standards would ensure testing of residents’ water for these chemicals so that appropriate actions can be taken to protect public health if a problem arises.
Second, the governor should fast-track a plan to reduce sources of PFAS chemicals. Several years ago, the Departments of Ecology and Health recognized the threat posed by these chemicals and announced plans to develop recommendations for identifying and eliminating sources. The agencies must quickly complete this phaseout plan, prioritizing actions to replace PFAS-containing firefighting foam with safer alternatives and phasing out toxic consumer products, especially food packaging.
We cannot sit by while these chemicals continue to poison our food, water and people. The state has the opportunity to prevent additional harm and to clean up what should be our right – safe food and water.
Laurie Valeriano is executive director of Toxic-Free Future (formerly Washington Toxics Coalition), a statewide nonprofit organization that advocates for strong science-based health protections for people and the environment.