Written by Caitlin Rissmiller
Between military bases and isolated bucolic towns, Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS, can be found within many of the United States’ water sources. However, low income communities and areas with higher numbers of people of color are disproportionately affected by PFAS. Governmental negligence has left most of the US to suffer the effects of PFAS in drinking water, but studies conducted in non-military base sites point to a commonality of dangerous levels of PFAS in marginalized communities.
A study of PFAS by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found that in comparison to predominantly white and middle/upper income communities, marginalized communities are significantly more likely to be impacted by PFAS in their drinking water supplies. Northeastern University conducted a study which examined the geographic proximity (within 5 miles) of low income and predominantly POC communities to PFAS contaminated water sources. The reality of proximity of POC communities to PFAS contaminated sources was 22% higher than their expected levels. For low income communities, the proximity to contaminated water sources was 15% higher than their expected levels. An example of these communities is Flint, Michigan, where the water supply is acutely impacted by PFAS. Flint is home to a majority POC population where nearly 40% of the citizens live under the poverty line. The city’s water supply was formerly contaminated by lead which was located in the Flint River watershed. The local government made the switch from receiving water from the Detroit water supply to the Flint River in effort to save the city money, but ended up creating a state of emergency for Flint and severely harming the community. Years later, Michigan and most of the USA face a PFAS epidemic, and low income and predominantly POC communities such as Flint continue to face a contaminated water supply.
According to UCS, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are more likely to live in areas which are characterized by industrialization, urbanization, abandoned mines, landfills, and serious congestion. This likely leads to more PFAS contaminated water sources, which is only one problem in the litany of health challenges marginalized communities face. Marginalized communities who have faced redlining and neglect from their state governments oftentimes cannot sustain major projects like a PFAS cleanup and maintenance system, and are therefore subjected to unsafe water supplies. There is an overall lack of understanding of the seriousness of PFAS and the lifelong conditions that come with a PFAS contaminated water supply. Regardless of awareness or action from one’s local government, living in a certain zip code should not be the determining factor for a person’s health.
The Environmental Working Group's Tap Water database is a tool which provides information on the status of contaminants in local water sources. Investigate your town’s water quality and bring it to the attention of your local government!
Detroit Free Press. (December 2019). PFAS contamination is Michigan's biggest environmental crisis in 40 years. Retrieved April 8, 2022, from https://www.freep.com/in-depth/news/local/michigan/2019/04/25/pfas-contamination-michigan-crisis/3365301002/.
Great Lakes Now. (October 2021). Seven Years On: The Flint water crisis has yet to conclude. Retrieved April 8, 2022, from https://www.greatlakesnow.org/2021/10/seven-years-flint-water-crisis/.
The PFAS Project Lab. (2016). Flint, Michigan. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://pfasproject.com/flint-michigan/.
Union of Concerned Scientists. (October 2019). Contamination Is an Equity Issue, and President Trump’s EPA Is Failing to Fix It. Retrieved April 9, 2022, from https://blog.ucsusa.org/genna-reed/pfas-contamination-is-an-equity-issue-president-trumps-epa-is-failing-to-fix-it/.