Communities wrestle with pricey PFAS clean-up efforts

By Sascha Brodsky

On a recent wintry day, Deborah Brown walked along the edge of Lake Washington in Newburgh, New York, and pointed to a sign warning people not to fish because the waters are known to be contaminated with toxic chemicals.

“You wouldn’t want to eat the fish you catch,” Brown, a member of the Newburgh Clean Water Project, told a visitor.

Newburgh is one of many communities around the United States – indeed, around the world – now grappling with the knowledge that their landscapes and lives have come under threat from a class of chemicals known as per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that are being found throughout the environment.

Scientists have linked PFAS exposure to various health problems, including cancer, congenital disabilities, and liver disease. PFAS are known as “forever chemicals” because they do not break down easily and accumulate over time. Studies have estimated PFAS to be present in the blood of an estimated 97% of Americans and in hundreds of species of wildlife around the globe.

Last year, the Biden administration announced plans to “research, restrict, and remediate harmful PFAS,” and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has rolled out an array of strategies, including sharply lowering the allowable levels of certain types of PFAS in drinking water. The action is expected to trigger billions of dollars in spending on clean-up efforts across the country.

But for impacted communities, eradicating PFAS contamination – if that is even possible – can’t come fast enough.