WASHINGTON (CN) – Although the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to bar reporters from AP, CNN and other news outlets from a water contamination summit Tuesday dominated coverage of the event, attendees say the meeting was a milestone in addressing an issue that has led to the shutting down of community water supplies nationwide.
The summit was organized by Peter Grevatt, director of the EPA’s Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, and it brought together members of the scientific community and federal and state regulators.
They gathered to discuss the emerging program of Polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS or PFOAS, man-made chemicals that are slow to break down and have been linked to thyroid defects, problems in pregnancy and certain cancers.
In a video released by the EPA shortly after the summit’s opening session, Grevatt told attendees “today’s event … is the first step in the process to gather input and perspectives on PFAOs.“
“This is about the protection of public health … the drinking water. That’s what we’re going to be talking about here,” he said.
The EPA has been collecting data on PFAOs since 2012. Since then, public drinking water supplies is several communities across the country have been temporarily shut down after high levels of the chemicals have been identified.
In communities like Blades, Delaware, the water has been turned back on after local utilities installed new filtering equipment.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt also spoke at the summit, outlining the agency’s short- and long-terms goals for dealing with the chemical which has been detected in local ground water in at least 20 states.
Those goals include evaluating a need for a maximum contaminant level for the chemicals.
Currently, PFAOs are the subject of a lifetime health advisory, but it is widely believed that a stricter standard would enable the federal government and individuals states to better regulate the use and cleanup of the compound.
Pruitt said his agency also needs to standardize regulations for remediating contaminated sites, a goal he said he hopes to accomplish by the end of the year.
Other goals include declaring the chemicals a hazardous substance, and developing toxicity values for the compound, a process he said is currently underway at an agency laboratory in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“[PFAs have] been used in products we use every day,” Pruitt said. “But as we’ve used those chemicals over decades … concerns have grown as they get into the environment and impact communities in an adverse way.”
Seth Kellogg, a member of the scientist and engineers board of the National Groundwater Association, attended the summit on both Tuesday, and said she was heartened to see EPA taking the lead on the issue as states continue to seek clarity on what they should be doing about PFOAs.
Kellogg said over the course of the two days of the summit, the most persistent calls from attendees were for the federal government’s lead on regulation, more support with toxicological studies on how the chemicals impact humans, and creating more analytical methods that can study the impact of PFOAs beyond the water supply.
“Only 20 percent of PFOAs exposure is coming from drinking water,” she said.
Kellogg said another common theme at the summit was the messaging around PFOAs. She was quick to point out this messaging wasn’t about “coloring” the public’s understanding of the chemical, but more about getting state agencies to work together to develop a cohesive message.
“The [messaging] discussion was more about consistency, transparency and good data,” she said. “It centered around how challenging it is when you’ve got many groups coming with different perspectives trying to get information to the public.”
Kellogg said attendees also sought data on the broader family of PFOAs. She said there are thousands of variants of the chemical, an equal number of sister chemicals, and that compounds the difficulty in addressing their presence and associated health concerns.
“Given that universe of compounds that are out there, MCLs on two of them, that is just a drop in the bucket,” she said.
And Kellogg said while it was encouraging to hear officials at the highest levels of the EPA talk about setting a maximum contaminant level for the chemicals, it is still likely to take some time for that to happen.
“It didn’t sound like [it will happen] any time soon,” she said, noting that the process of setting such a level for another chemical, Chlorate, began in 2011, and it still hasn’t come to fruition.
“It doesn’t seem EPA will be in a position to take a regulatory lead any time soon and it will instead fall on the states,” she said.