WASHINGTON, D.C. — When Hope Grosse was growing up in Warminster, Pennsylvania, she rarely thought about her home’s proximity to the Naval Air Warfare Center nearby, and how that might impact the safety of the water she drank and bathed in daily.
Now 53 years old, Grosse was diagnosed with stage four cancer at age 25, shortly after her father died from brain cancer. The cause, she is certain, was the presence of chemicals found in the water, known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), a group of man-made chemicals that are toxic to humans and can increase the risk of cancer, among other health risks.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been under mounting pressure to regulate and restrict the use of PFAS, which can be found in everything from non-stick pans to firefighting foam. But impacted communities say the government hasn’t done enough, something they worry reflects the Trump administration’s ties to the chemical industry.
“The EPA’s basically saying ‘yeah, we’re going to do it,’ but…,” Grosse told ThinkProgress on Wednesday, trailing off. “From our area, we aren’t seeing it.”
Grosse’s frustration came hours after the House Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on the environment held a hearing to address PFAS contamination and regulation. Both Reps. Harley Rouda (D-CA) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) referenced Grosse’s story specifically during the hearing.
“Ms. Grosse’s father died of cancer at 52 years of age, and her sister suffered from ovarian cysts, lupus, fibromyalgia, and abdominal aneurysms. [Grosse] worries that she has unwittingly exposed her own children to these toxic chemicals,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who submitted Grosse’s testimony for the record.
The government and industries alike have been aware of the dangers posed by PFAS for years, but as awareness grows, so too has the expectation that something be done to protect the public. Recent crises — including when two Michigan communities were forced to drink bottled water after alarmingly high PFAS levels were detected last summer — have prompted outrage across the country. But the federal government has yet to step in and regulate the chemicals, which include PFOA, PFOS, and GenX, among others.
In February, then-Acting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Andrew Wheeler unveiled an “action plan” announcing that the agency intends to ultimately address PFAS. But environmental groups and those impacted by contamination panned the announcement, which failed to establish Maximum Containment Levels (MCL) for PFAS in drinking water. At present, the agency relies on a non-enforceable health advisory level for only PFOA and PFOS of 70 parts per trillion. Experts have repeatedly stated they believe the threshold for the chemicals should be far lower, and advocates want to see PFAS use restricted in products as well as drinking water.
Among the communities most impacted by PFAS contamination are military personnel and their families living on or near bases. On Wednesday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a report mapping all of the areas where the Department of Defense (DoD) has found PFAS in water with levels above what the EPA has deemed “safe.” The report found at least 106 U.S. military sites where either drinking water or groundwater is contaminated with the toxic chemicals.
PFAS used at military sites easily enters local water sources and research has indicated that such contamination could lead to the devastating ramifications experienced by people like Grosse. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) has found that certain PFAS chemicals increase the risk of cancer, in addition to affecting growth and learning behavior in children, among other health problems.
In addition to David Ross, the EPA’s assistant administrator on water issues, Wednesday’s hearing also included testimony from Maureen Sullivan, deputy assistant secretary for the environment at DoD.
“Our health affairs staff is going to be conducting a health study… in coordination with the Veterans Administration,” said Sullivan, while Ross argued that the EPA has “a robust plan” to combat PFAS.
But Grosse said she felt both Ross and Sullivan largely punted on the issue, with neither official explaining why discussing PFAS contamination has taken so long, or why, even now, the plan offered by the EPA is still largely an “invisible” effort set to materialize down the road.
“It’s just vague,” Grosse said. “It’s the same thing they’ve been telling us,” she went on, referencing Wednesday’s hearing. “It was like Wheeler’s speech [last month]… too little, too late.”
Mistrust of the government is a common sentiment expressed by people who have been working for years to address PFAS contamination in their communities. But under the Trump administration, that skepticism has deepened.
“They say, ‘oh, we’re for clean water and clean air,’ but [they] roll back everything in the history of the EPA,” said Loreen Hackett, 54, a resident of Hoosick Falls, New York.
Hackett’s village has grappled with groundwater contamination for several years, with high cancer levels in the area linked to PFOA in the municipal water supply. Community members have agitated for help, but Hackett said she’s been underwhelmed by the responses from top officials like Wheeler, as well as the figures surrounding him.
The Trump administration maintains close ties with industries that government agencies are meant to regulate and reign in. That has been the case at the EPA, where David Dunlap, a former Koch Industries official, now serves in the agency’s Office of Research and Development, working on chemical research. Dunlap has participated in numerous meetings relating to PFAS, even though Koch subsidiary Georgia-Pacific, a pulp and paper company, has used PFAS in its products.
Outside of Dunlap, another chief source of concern is the outsized influence of the American Chemistry Council (ACC). The industry trade association has heavily lobbied the EPA for years on behalf of chemical companies, along with the plastics and chlorine industries.
In addition to companies like ExxonMobil Chemical and Chevron Phillips Chemical, ACC’s clients include DuPont, which has faced years of litigation over PFOA contamination in West Virginia. ACC subsidiary FluoroCouncil has called it “inappropriate” to regulate “the universe of PFAS” as a single class, arguing that different chemicals should be assessed separately.
Under the Trump administration, ties between ACC and the EPA have strengthened, and the agency is now dotted with former ACC staff. One of the most prominent names is Nancy Beck, who serves in the EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention and formerly worked as a senior director at ACC.
At the EPA, Beck has worked to loosen regulations on toxic chemicals, all while remaining friendly with her former coworkers. As ThinkProgress reported last month, Beck agreed in 2017 to help find a current ACC employee’s husband a “senior” position at the EPA through an email exchange later made public through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Another former ACC employee, Liz Bowman, served as the top EPA public affairs official under former administrator Scott Pruitt before departing in May 2018. The current EPA assistant administrator on toxic substances, Alexandra Dunn, is meanwhile serving as the keynote speaker for this week’s Global Chemical Regulations Conference and Exhibition, which is hosted by ACC.
“We know who they’re working for,” Hackett said, referencing the EPA’s staff. “They’ve made it evident.”
A lack of trust in the government means PFAS-impacted communities feel largely on their own. Grosse said that she and a friend are organizing educational sessions to inform their neighbors about the contamination, rather than waiting for officials to do so. And along with other parents, she is trying to take a proactive approach with the knowledge that the contamination could be found anywhere in the body. Grosse said she is collecting her children’s baby teeth as they fall out, with plans to have the teeth tested for traces of PFAS.
Hackett similarly has had conversations with friends about the risks, including one who unwittingly transmitted the chemicals to her newborn while breastfeeding. “No one told her what could happen,” Hackett said.
Even with the federal government slowly turning to PFAS regulation, Hackett and Grosse both told ThinkProgress they think the responsibility will ultimately fall to states. But in the absence of federal standards, state actions have varied widely and sometimes with little demonstrable impact, as evidenced by ongoing problems in places like Warminster and Hoosick Falls. Meanwhile, advocates worry, agencies like the EPA and DoD will continue to drag their feet.
“Each community has its own little battles,” said Hackett, but she emphasized that regardless of their differences, they always wind up facing the same bureaucratic wall.
“It’s just always, what Goliath do we have to battle to get work done?” she asked.