PFAS in California Groundwater: A Call to Action Against Environmental Inequities
The prevalence of PFAS chemicals, often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ for how they persist in the environment, poses a major issue to our health. Nationwide, more than 57,000 sites (1) are presumed to be contaminated with PFAS chemicals. The EPA proposed the first ever national standard for PFAS in drinking water in March of this year but PFAS contamination is a real-time issue that threatens to cost communities millions of dollars in cleanup.
In recent years, California has taken progressive action against PFAS contamination by regulating use of specific PFAS chemicals in a range of products from textiles to cosmetics to food contact materials. Despite these moves toward change, the threat of PFAS contamination of the state’s drinking water is already a reality.
The Center for Environmental Health (CEH) sent legal notices to 5 metal plating facilities located in the cities of Compton, Torrance, Gardena, and Azusa, all within the Los Angeles area earlier this week after data indicated significant levels of PFOS being discharged from the facilities into groundwater beneath the facilities. This news comes just weeks after legal notices were sent to three facilities in the Bay Area and Vacaville. In each of these cases, self-reported data indicated that PFAS chemicals were being discharged into groundwater, which is an important source of drinking water in the state.
Environmental Injustice Implications: Who is affected?
Martha Camacho Rodriguez, Founder of nonprofit Social Eco Education (SEE), is a water advocate and resident of Downey, California, and was a high school teacher in Compton for many years. She is working with CEH to help fight for the health of those working in and living near the polluting facilities.
She describes turning on the faucet in a Compton school staff lounge and finding bright yellow, foul smelling water, which was later found to be a result of manganese contamination. This is an example of how many communities face multiple environmental injustices that become cumulative burdens. For many communities, it is never just one or two factors affecting quality of life, but numerous threats resulting from systems of oppression completely altering their health and well-being.
“I’m a consumer and I know that if I go to the grocery store and buy something that’s not ok, I can take it back and get a refund. When something is unhealthy or dirty, there are consequences — but here we aren’t seeing any consequences [with the contaminated groundwater],” says Camacho Rodriguez.
These metal plating facilities are concentrated in lower income areas and areas made up of predominantly Black and Brown communities. This is but one of many issues facing these communities at this moment:
“A lot of times Black and Brown folks are deemed unhealthy, with [high instances of] high blood pressure and cholesterol or diabetes and made to feel like everything that’s wrong is their fault,” says Camacho Rodriguez. “We leave that intersection of contamination out when people don’t realize that as we drink or eat or breathe certain contaminants that disrupt our endocrine systems, all of that plays into these diseases that for many of us are killing us.”
Narratives like this place the onus of disease and economic insecurity on the individual or group with no concern for the systems that place and keep people in these situations. For this reason the public health aspect of this issue is deeply entwined with both social and economic justice issues.
Groundwater & Drinking Water: How am I affected?
So what do illegal discharges of PFAS chemicals into groundwater have to do with the quality of the drinking water coming out of the average residents’ tap? According to the State Water Board, most groundwater is classified and used as an existing or potential source of drinking water. In an average year, California’s groundwater contributes around 40% toward the State’s total water supply, and during times of drought, it contributes up to 60% or more. (2) In Compton, Southeast Los Angeles, tap water is cited as coming “from local, deep groundwater wells”(3) located beneath the service area, especially concerning since we’ve identified at least two PFAS polluting facilities discharging into groundwater there. Groundwater is also utilized for agricultural and industrial uses, meaning that it is used to water plants and sustain animals that we ultimately consume. Because we are talking about “forever chemicals” which do not readily break down in the body or environment, polluting any waterway will have long-lasting repercussions for humans, wildlife, and the environment more broadly.
For those worried about PFAS contamination in their tap water, there are filters which remove PFAS available on the market but these are costly and present a financial barrier for under-resourced communities.(4) As such, the onus should not be on individuals to keep their water safe, when this responsibility should fall on the polluting businesses and regulatory local, state, and federal authorities to keep our water clean and safe to drink. Costs of clean up should not be paid by taxpayers, but by those responsible for the contamination.
Legal Action: How will this issue be resolved?
CEH’s initiation of legal action against these companies is one important step in affecting change. In the short term, our goal is to force polluters to immediately identify and address the source of the PFAS pollution so that continued discharges of these chemicals into groundwater cease. In the long term, polluters must be held responsible for the contamination of groundwater and for cleaning up this mess.
Technologies that could address clean up and remediation of water are in the early stages of development, which makes this case an opportunity to set a precedent for a ‘polluter pays’ model to PFAS clean up. It is important that legislative and state ordinances reflect the importance of our groundwater’s overall health because it directly affects all of us.
Access to clean water is a fundamental right and like any public resource, (5) needs to be protected. Any source of contamination of either groundwater or surface water needs to be addressed, regulated, and enforced.