We Need To Get The Lead Out. Now.

Categories

Clean Water

CC BY-NC-SA 2.0© Theen Moy / Flickr.com
by Mia DiFelice and Mary Grant

We’ve heard this story so many times, it’s lost its shock. Lead found in our cities, our neighborhoods, our schools, our plumbing. Since the scandal in Flint, Michigan came to light in 2016, lead in our water has been a running story in our newsfeeds. And no wonder — every state in the country has lead service lines. 

A reminder: there is no safe level of lead in drinking water, and it’s especially dangerous for children. It can lead to developmental disorders, damage to the nervous system and blood cells, and more. In 2021, out of a million children in the U.S. tested, half showed detectable levels of lead in their blood. Lead exposure is much more likely for poorer children and children of color, reinforcing historical inequities. 

Replacing lead lines is a human rights issue, a public health issue and a social justice issue. Yet, our elected officials have dragged their feet on full funding to fix this problem. Meanwhile, corporations are targeting municipal governments for privatization — which only stands to worsen the crisis.

The Link Between Lead And The Loss Of Local Control 

Flint’s lead crisis began when a state-appointed emergency manager took control of the city and changed its water source, supposedly to cut costs. Then-Governor Rick Snyder used the state emergency manager law to strip majority Black cities of democratic decision-making. This put money for bondholders before the health and wellbeing of residents. Immediately after the switch, residents raised the alarm about the gross, discolored water. The state emergency manager’s response? To repeatedly insist that the water was safe to drink. 

In 2014, Veolia, the world’s largest water corporation, was hired to study Flint’s water system and offer advice. It told the city that the water was safe. Now, the company faces a lawsuit from Flint children who were poisoned. It wasn’t until October 2015 that public health community organizing and advocacy got the emergency manager to switch the water supply back.

After Flint’s crisis came Pittsburgh’s. Pittsburgh also relied on a deal with Veolia that failed to protect public safety. As in Flint, the City was strapped for cash. The American Society of Civil Engineers estimated the City needed billions of dollars to get its water system up to snuff. So Pittsburgh called on Veolia to cut costs and manage the system. 

Veolia’s contract with Pittsburgh, as with many of its other clients, paid the company a percentage of the savings it touted. This explicitly incentivized Veolia to cut costs as much as possible. One of the items on the chopping block during its tenure was water treatment. The system switched to a cheaper corrosion control chemical — a change made without necessary state approval. And the consequences, as in Flint, were dire. Lead contamination surpassed the EPA’s action levels, or the level at which water systems must take action. It blew past the level of contamination deemed safe by public health officials — that is, zero. 

We Need Clean And Affordable Water

Nationally, privatization is wreaking havoc on our water supply. On average, utility bills are 59% higher for those on private systems versus public. At the same time, the incentives for quality plummet. Cutting costs for profit means cutting corners. Ultimately, residents pay the price.  

This summer, Rep. Rashida Tlaib led a tour of Michigan for the “Get The Lead Out” Caucus. The caucus is digging deeper into the issue of lead in our drinking water through research and conversations with residents on the ground. As they prepare recommendations for the House, we need to make clear our demands for clean, affordable, lead-free water. 

Get the lead out in…

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In 2016, 17% of Pittsburgh houses were turning up with lead contamination above the EPA’s action level. Since then, the local water authority has replaced 52-miles-worth of public and private lead service lines. However, the City has much more work ahead of it. About 8,000 service lines still need to be replaced, with aims to finish by 2026. Meanwhile, about 400 children are diagnosed with lead poisoning in the City each year.

SCROLL SIDEWAYS TO NAVIGATE

The Wet Well is where all of the wastewater enters the plant. CC BY-SA 2.0; 90.5 WESA, Flickr
Get the lead out in…

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C.’s lead crisis began in November 2000 when the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority changed a water treatment chemical. Lead rose to dangerous levels among the city’s 25,000 residences with known lead service lines. The DCWSA tried downplaying the risks of lead. They knew the lead levels were elevated in 2002, but the public didn’t know until the Washington Post published an exposé in 2004. By failing to properly notify the public, DCWSA violated our national lead-in-water rule. Now, twenty years later, NRDC estimates that D.C. has almost 32,000 lead service lines. The District’s officials and utility company have taken little action to address the ongoing threat.

Construction workers check on progress inside a CSO tunnel for the Clean Rivers Project in D.C.
Get the lead out in…

Benton Harbor, Michigan

Since 2018, lead testing has revealed dozens of homes in Benton Harbor with dangerously high levels. Last fall, a coalition petitioned the EPA for emergency action to bring those levels down. In response, the Governor signed an executive order to give residents alternative water and filters. It will cost $30 million to replace the City’s service lines, as nearly all were confirmed to have lead or could possibly have lead in 2020. By June 2022, two-thirds of the city’s lead service lines had been replaced. Residents continue to call for a stronger response to the crisis, including faster assistance to replace all lead service lines.

Get the lead out in…

Flint, Michigan

Eight years have passed since Flint’s water crisis shone a national spotlight on the lead in our pipes. Yet, Flint residents still struggle with untrustworthy water and unaffordable water bills. In 2015, tests showed that Flint’s water exceeded 25 ppb of lead in most samples, with some reaching over 100 or even 1,000 ppb. City and state officials repeatedly insisted the water was safe to drink, but local organizing forced the emergency manager to switch back water sources. Flint is aiming to finish all lead service line replacements by September 2022. 

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; George Thomas, Flickr

A Strong Lead-in-Water Rule

By October 2024, President Biden’s administration has promised a stronger Lead and Copper Rule. For years, community groups have urged action to fix the broken lead-in-water regulation. Our government needs to lower the action level as close to zero as possible, improve sampling and require full lead service line replacement within a decade. These changes will help ensure that we get lead out of our water. 

At the same time, communities must get the funding they need to ensure everyone can access clean water — water that isn’t poisoned by lead.

A Solution In The WATER Act

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill directed $15 billion a year for lead service line replacements. It distributes about half of that through loans instead of grants dedicated to disadvantaged communities. This is not enough. In fact, it’s only a quarter of what the water industry says we need to replace every lead service line in the country. 

We have another option — the Water Affordability, Transparency, Equity and Reliability Act led by Reps. Brenda Lawrence and Ro Khanna and Sen. Bernie Sanders. This legislation has more than 100 cosponsors in the House of Representatives and 6 in the Senate. The WATER Act would dedicate $35 billion each and every year to update our water systems, including replacing lead service lines. It would send $1 billion a year specifically to schools to improve water pipes and fixtures. And, the WATER Act is the only water funding proposal that explicitly calls for water to remain in public hands.

Call on Congress to support the WATER Act.

Big Oil’s Lies Are Killing Our Planet — And Us

Categories

Climate and Energy

by Mia DiFelice

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has lied to us and covered up their climate impacts. Thankfully, Big Oil is finally facing consequences. Several cities and states have sued fossil fuel corporations for their lies. For instance, Massachusetts’ attorney general alleges Exxon broke consumer protection laws and lied to investors about the risks climate change poses to their business. 

But as the industry faces new heat, it’s turning to new lies to keep us hooked. Here are five myths Big Oil is pushing on us, and the reality they don’t want us to know.

Lie #1: Good Food Needs Gas

The best cooking is done on an open flame. This line has been pushed by the natural gas industry for decades. Gas stoves have become symbols of food and family, hearth and home. But whatever merits gas has for cooking, they don’t outweigh its dangerous health and climate impacts. 

Just an hour of running a gas stove and oven creates unsafe pollutant levels in the whole house, not just the kitchen. Nitrogen oxides, a family of such stove-emitting pollutants, are linked to heart and respiratory problems. In fact, children in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to have asthma than those in homes that use electric. And a whopping 10% of all U.S. emissions come just from burning gas in commercial and residential buildings. 

Despite these hazards, new single-family homes built with gas hookups increased by 20% from the 1970s to 2019. That’s because the gas industry has flooded our airwaves, our magazines and even our social media feeds with ads. For example, the American Gas Association’s #cookingwithgas campaign pulled chefs from around the country to drum up support. It’s also paid influencers to “gush” about gas stoves on Instagram. 

The fossil fuel industry has a vested interest in keeping gas in our homes. But the fact is electric stoves are way more efficient, less polluting and kinder to the planet.

Lie #2: “Natural” Gas Is Our Bridge To Clean Energy

When the fracking boom arrived in the 2010s, the industry claimed that gas would be a bridge to clean energy. By replacing dirty coal, the story went, gas could get our emissions in check while renewable technology grew cheaper and scalable. 

But fracked gas has barely tipped the scale on emissions. In the past ten years, emissions from coal and gas fell by only 10%. Methane leaks from fracking infrastructure counteracts any claim of a benefit. In 2020, we did the math and found that if gas remains our dominant source of electricity, emissions will actually rise in the coming decades. Meanwhile, we know that renewables are ready to scale, affordable and critical to eliminating fossil fuels in the electricity, building and transportation sectors. We just need the political will to build them as quickly as possible.

As fossil fuel companies build out new fracking infrastructure, they’re locking us into gas for another generation at least. The average lifespan of a gas power plant is 4 to 5 decades. By investing in new gas plants, we’re either dooming the Earth to runaway climate change or wasting billions (often subsidized with public money) on facilities that must be decommissioned in just a few years. 

Lie #3: More Fossil Fuels = More Jobs

Opponents to decarbonization love to say that slashing fossil fuels will slash jobs. In 2021, the American Petroleum Institute claimed 2.5 million people work directly in oil and gas. But we checked their work and found that their report double-counted and overcounted by over 2 million jobs. 

Moreover, fossil fuel companies are not genuinely concerned with preserving employment. Even as production and profits increased in the U.S. over the years, the industry has hemorrhaged jobs. This is because oil and gas companies eagerly pursue automation to cut costs.

On the other hand, growing green industries like efficiency, ecosystem restoration and renewables will create more jobs than doubling down on fossil fuels. Fossil-fuel reliant communities shouldn’t be tied to dying industries that’ll leave pollution for decades to come. Rather, they need — and demand — a just transition that creates good jobs in clean energy. 

Lie #4: Carbon Capture Will Solve The Climate Crisis

The new darling of the fossil fuel industry is carbon capture and storage, which pulls carbon out of power plant emissions. Proponents say this will change the game on lowering emissions, as it prevents emitted CO2 from ever reaching the atmosphere. CCS has received a lot of press recently — and a lot of cash. The Biden administration has dedicated more than $10 billion of taxpayer funds through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law to build out CCS infrastructure. 

But CCS demonstration projects have already received $6.9 billion of our money. And these projects actually proved that carbon capture is not a viable climate solution. Plagued with budget overshoots and underperformance, by 2016 only 4% of planned CCS capacity saw operations.

We’ve seen plenty of proof that these projects require new, expensive infrastructure and way too much energy to justify ever building them. Carbon capture systems essentially need a whole new power plant to fuel them. As a result, CCS projects in the U.S. have been net emitters, rather than reducers. And, in an outrageous turn of events, much of the carbon captured in CCS is used for enhanced oil recovery. This practice injects carbon into wells to help extract even more fossil fuels.

Ultimately, the best and fastest solution to decarbonize is to transition to 100% renewable energy. This, plus energy efficiency and rolling back demand, are our best bets to soften the blow of climate change. Oil companies saying otherwise are trying to distract us from the solutions that threaten their bottom line.

Lie #5: Oil & Gas Wants To Help Us Get Green

Since the Paris Climate agreement was signed in 2015, Big Oil has spent hundreds of millions of dollars rebranding itself. They’ve touted algae biofuels, recycling programs, clean energy investments and more to portray themselves as partners in a green transition. But while they loudly talk the talk, they, unsurprisingly, have failed to walk the walk. 

This year, researchers dug into the financial statements and annual reports of four major oil companies. Even though the companies sprinkled reports with phrases like “low-carbon energy” and “clean-energy transition,” they’ve actually increased fossil fuel production and barely dipped their toes in clean energy investments. 

Instead, as another report found, the five biggest oil and gas companies spent $200 million a year lobbying against climate legislation in the five years after Paris.

To make matters worse, the 12 largest oil and gas companies have committed to pouring $387 million a day on oil and gas extraction through 2030. Their planned projects (60% of which have broken ground) total 646 billion tons of emissions. That doesn’t sound like a “clean-energy transition” to us.

Big Oil’s Lies Are Ugly, And The Consequences If We Believe Them Will Be Uglier

Big Oil is trying to paint itself as part of a new, green future. But the industry has not substantially pivoted to clean energy, halted development or meaningfully reduced emissions. Instead, it’s doubling down on fossil fuels while pushing false narratives and pretending to develop “solutions.” 

We have to make it clear that Big Oil can no longer get away with misleading us. Our planet don’t need expensive technology or feel-good stories. It needs us to abandon fossil fuels now.

Knowledge is power.
Take it back from Big Oil.

PFAS: No Sticking, No Staining … And Not Going Anywhere

Categories

Food SystemClean Water

By Mia DiFelice

The story begins in 1938, with the accidental invention of Teflon. Made famous by the miraculous “nonstick” cookware, Teflon flooded American kitchens in the 1960s. But Teflon’s stick- and stain-fighting power comes from the chemical PFOA. As Teflon sold the miracle of PFOA to consumers, new, similar chemicals flooded the market. Those chemicals, called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are showing up in our baby clothes, our burger wrappers, our blood. And they’re not going away any time soon.

Is That a Bad Thing?

Very — and PFAS manufacturers have known this for a long time. In 2005, the EPA fined Dupont, the maker of Teflon, $16.5 million. The fine penalized Dupont for covering up decades of studies that linked PFOA to cancer, birth defects and liver damage. Dupont and 3M, the maker of another PFAS chemical, knew back in the ’60s that these substances could be dangerous.

Now, we see studies linking PFAS to thyroid disease, decreased fertility, endocrine disruption, cognitive problems and immune system impacts (for example, reduced response to vaccines). There is even evidence linking PFAS exposure to greater risk of COVID and more severe COVID symptoms.

Despite this research, the U.S. still lacks federal regulations for PFAS. Chemical companies can keep information on PFAS close to the chest, so we often can’t know if a product we purchase contains the chemicals. Our federal government does not regulate all industrial PFAS wastewater discharges, either. On top of that, it has not designated PFAS as hazardous substances, which would help clean up contamination sites.

Where Do We Find PFAS?

In short, everywhere. If a product is labeled non-stick, stain-resistant or water-resistant, there’s a good chance it contains PFAS. And once PFAS are in the environment, they spread and persist. When we toss garbage with PFAS in it, the chemicals leach from the landfill into our air, water and soil. Then they can get into the groundwater. Scientists have even found PFAS in places thought to be undamaged by humans, like the Arctic and the deep ocean. In the U.S., researchers estimate they’re in 97% of people’s blood.

And PFAS, also called “forever chemicals,” are nearly impossible to get rid of. If a manufacturer stopped using PFAS right now, they could still find traces in products coming out of that plant a decade later.

The Stuff We Buy

Stain-resistant and water-resistant fabrics usually have PFAS. For instance, a recent study found 60% of fabrics used in children’s products labeled “waterproof” or “stain-resistant” contained PFAS. When PFAS-treated upholstery or carpeting wears down, we inhale the dust. We can eat PFAS when they slide off our water-resistant food packaging. They’re also in our cosmetics and our toiletries, where they are most likely to get into our systems through our eyes.

The Food We Eat

When we flush products with PFAS down the drain, the chemicals build up in our sewers. Many wastewater treatment plants filter out the solids and clean the water. But those solids have to go somewhere, and often, they go to farms. Farms have long-used sewer sludge as fertilizer. As a result, the Environmental Working Group estimates that 20 million acres of US cropland could be contaminated with PFAS. The chemicals now appear in the crops of PFAS-affected farmland — and in the meat and milk of animals that eat those feed crops.

The Water We Drink

In 2021, EWG found PFAS contaminants in the public and private water of all 50 states. We might drink from the tap several times a day, so if PFAS are in the water, our bodies are continuously contaminated. Researchers have found PFAS in the drinking water of towns near factories that work with the chemicals. They’ve found the chemicals in the drinking water of towns near military bases, which use PFAS-laden firefighting foam for training exercises. We depend on water to survive — our government should not allow it to be laced with toxic forever chemicals.

What Can We Do About PFAS?

Many companies have voluntarily phased out PFAS, especially in the last twenty years as their dangers came to light. However, the EPA has not set a legal limit for PFAS in drinking water, nor required manufacturers to help clean up contamination.

In 2021, the agency released its “PFAS Strategic Roadmap,” committing the agency to several measures to combat PFAS in the next few years. And just this week, it designated $1 billion of Infrastructure Bill funds to help local communities address PFAS. In the same announcement, the EPA published health advisories on four major PFAS chemicals — but this is out of thousands in the family.

While these are important steps in the right direction, the advisories aren’t enforceable, and communities have already waited decades for action. There is so much more work to be done. 

Food & Water Watch calls for:
  1. PFAS to be regulated as a class of chemicals, not on an individual level. Much of the work on PFAS so far has focused on PFOA and PFOS, allowing dozens of other PFAS to come onto the market with little scrutiny. When PFOA came under fire, Dupont was quick to replace it with GenX, shorter-chain compounds that share many of the same toxic traits as its sibling chemicals. But GenX may be even more toxic and could be more difficult to remove from drinking water. Without addressing PFAS as a category, the EPA will continue playing whack-a-mole with the thousands of varieties.
  2. Enforceable national drinking water limits, not only for legacy PFAS chemicals but all the chemicals in the family.
  3. Hazardous substance designation under the Superfund law for PFAS as class to jump start the cleanup of contaminated areas. 
  4. Passage of the WATER Act, which provides greater support for local water systems to test and treat for PFAS in drinking water and wastewater systems. This support must reach both public water utilities and household wells. If remediation isn’t possible, Congress must provide support to connect communities with contaminated water  to new, clean water sources. 

We need more funding and better policy for PFAS. Tell Congress to pass the WATER Act!

Whistleblowers Say EPA’s Toxic Management Greenlights Toxic Chemicals

Categories

Food SystemClean Water

by Mia DiFelice

In the 1960s, the United States was drowning in pollution. Air pollution killed hundreds of New Yorkers, towns stank with sludge and smog, an Ohio river burst into flames. In response to public fears and public pressure, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Since then, the EPA has committed to “protecting human health and the environment” with regulations, education and funding for state and local programs. It claims to rely on “best available scientific information” to promote clean air, land and water for everyone. Yet, the agency has failed to keep up with emerging threats — in part because of industry sway.

Big corporations have made it their business to co-opt agencies meant to guard us from danger. Now, rather than fulfill its mission, the EPA too often protects the interests of polluting corporations instead. Nothing makes that clearer than information coming straight from four whistleblowing scientists. In July of last year, scientists from EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety shared evidence alleging abuse and corruption that give toxic chemicals a pass onto the market.

“The depth of it is pretty horrifying. I don’t sleep at night knowing what I know from the whistleblowers.”

Kyla Bennett, New England director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Their attorneys represent the whistleblowers.

The Office of Chemical Safety Does Not Stop all Unsafe Chemicals

Companies are constantly introducing new chemicals for manufacturing, construction, agribusiness and more. EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention studies these chemicals and keeps dangerous ones off the market. At least, that’s what it’s supposed to do.

In 2021, whistleblowers revealed how management undermined scientific findings and pressured scientists to change their reports for numerous chemicals. Or, perhaps worse, supervisors changed the reports’ conclusions without scientists knowing until after the fact. These scientists detailed a culture of intimidation, corruption and retaliation, which allows thousands of toxic chemicals into our homes and workplaces. Chemicals that were given a pass have been linked to cancer, developmental disorders and neurological effects, among other health risks.

It looks like the executives hired to protect the public are more worried about protecting the profits of chemical companies. And these whistleblowers say they’re willing to cheat, bully and lie to their staff to do so.

Is the EPA Loyal to Chemical Companies Over Public Health and Safety?

Throughout these instances of pressure and abuse, whistleblowers report, management often prioritized the chemical companies submitting chemicals for assessment. They emphasized how upset companies would be if the work was too slow. They even dangled the threat of lawsuits over scientists’ heads, if the assessment came out unfavorably. Moreover, according to one toxicologist at the agency, “It is the unwritten rule that to get promotions, all pesticides need to pass.”

All this happens because EPA management routinely jumps into the chemicals industry after leaving the agency. In fact, since 1974, all seven former EPA pesticide directors who continued working after their time at the EPA did so at pesticide companies. Other EPA officials have gone on to work as consultants and board members at agrochemical companies. 

This revolving door has devastating impacts for our health and our environment. For instance, from June 2016 to July 2021, 3,835 new chemical applications were submitted to the EPA. Not a single chemical was kept off-market. This included 40 PFAS compounds. Studies that companies submitted linked these chemicals to neurotoxicity, cancers, convulsions and more. Yet, all 40 PFAS chemicals have been allowed, largely unregulated, onto the market.

PFAS chemicals, also known as “forever chemicals,” do not break down naturally but will persist in the environment. By siding with the chemicals industry, senior officials put short-term career ambitions before the forever effects of toxic chemicals. 

This Isn’t the EPA’s First Alleged Chemical Cover-up

The EPA was already in the spotlight in 2018 for its inaction on glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup weedkiller. Bayer-Monsanto, owner of Roundup, has faced hundreds of thousands of lawsuits by people alleging a link between their cancer and Roundup. Contrary to warnings from the World Health Organization and numerous scientific studies, the EPA insists that glyphosate is not a human carcinogen.

Yet, in 2016, the agency had done an internal analysis on glyphosate linking the chemical to cancer. But it kept the study under wraps. Instead, drafts of the EPA’s human risk assessment for glyphosate (first published that same year) gave the chemical the lowest possible cancer rating: “Not likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”  

In a common industry strategy, Monsanto ghostwrote research and paid academics to put their names on it. The EPA used this scientifically dubious research, as well as dozens of other industry-funded, unpublished studies, to reach its equally meritless conclusions on glyphosate. 

Interestingly, Bayer-Monsanto has announced it will stop selling glyphosate-based products for home use, but not because the EPA stopped them. It seems entirely prompted instead by the tidal wave of lawsuits the corporation has faced. The EPA should have stepped in long before that point — and banned all uses of glyphosate. 

The EPA’s Two-Pronged Problem Puts Us All At Risk

EPA managers putting their thumb on the scale of critical scientific assessments threatens our health, safety and environment. And it will only get worse as corporations strengthen their influence. The market for glyphosate is expected to grow by billions of dollars in the next few years, despite the controversy. And researchers have found PFAS everywhere from widely used pesticides to children’s clothing and everything in between.

Making matters worse, the EPA struggles with severe lack of resources, funding and staffing. Administrator Michael Regan told Congress that the agency has only 50% of what it needs to “review the safety of new chemicals quickly in the way that the law requires.” Monsanto-Bayer spent more cash defending glyphosate in court than the entire budget of the Office of Pesticide Programs. The EPA does not have the capacity to stand up to chemical companies or even do its job correctly. Besides vulnerability to corruption, this results in backlogs of work, rushed assessments and hurried acceptance of industry “science.” 

Even with the EPA’s recent change of hands in the Biden Administration, the agency faces deep-rooted cultural problems that will be hard to shake off. In 2022, an internal survey showed that EPA scientists in the New Chemicals Division still suffer from burnout and fears of retaliation. Staff reported that a culture of fear, retribution and abuse at senior levels remains common. 

EPA executives are wooed by corporate influence at the top, while scrambling to make do with scarce resources from below. The result? An agency that is failing to protect us from the toxic threats seeping into our everyday lives. 

Food & Water Watch won’t stop fighting to hold EPA accountable to public health and the environment — not corporate profits. We can’t do it without you.

Help us continue the fight.