DETROIT—The U.S. House passed the “Dingell bill” last Wednesday that would regulate toxic chemicals in drinking water—and given Michigan’s polluted history, the measure could have a major impact in the state. The chemicals in question are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Also known by the moniker “forever chemicals,” PFAS are used in non-stick cookware, stain repellants, and pizza boxes to name but a few everyday items.
U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, the measure’s primary sponsor, stated that “PFAS chemicals are an urgent threat to public health… Now almost every American has PFAS coursing through their blood after generations of using the chemicals.” PFAS contamination has been linked to high cholesterol, thyroid disease, low infant birth weights, and various cancers.
The Biden administration came out in support of the bill, as clean water was one of Biden’s “top priorities” when campaigning for his presidency.
Should the bill pass the Senate, the EPA will then need to make a decision on drinking water standards and whether or not to “regulate the entire class” of PFAS—which ranges from 5,000 to 7,000 different substances.
In Michigan, groundwater is currently being tested in the Oscoda area by the Air Force and state response teams such as Michigan PFAS Action Response Team, or MPART. The decommissioned Wurtsmith Air Force Base was known to have high levels of PFAS contamination over a decade ago. One of the causes of this contamination is firefighting foam.
This is only the beginning of the global fight against PFAS contamination, however. Europe is already looking to ban all PFAS chemicals, hoping to have full support to do so by 2025. The use of specific PFAS is already on the decline, but whole new generations of them are on the rise. This highlights the fact that the U.S. has been slow to take action. Although, the Biden administration claims its taking “aggressive” action in its issued statement, neither the U.S. nor Europe seems to be acting aggressively enough, given the scale of the challenge.
The World Health Organization pointed out more than two years ago that half the world’s population will be living in “water-stressed areas” by 2025, and we are already at the point where only 1 in 3 people have access to safe, drinkable water. According to Water.org, this water crisis disproportionately affects women and children.
Michigan is not the only state fighting the battle for uncontaminated water and environmental cleanup. There is a long history of corporations and politicians not being held accountable for the poisoning of large populations of people. Although everyone remembers the recent Flint water crisis, there are numerous cases of similar contamination of residential areas and environmental racism.
These issues, which undoubtedly harbor larger, catastrophic ecological potential, are at least finally being taken seriously on a state and national scale. The fact that they’re finally being taken seriously bears witness to the fact that you cannot get away with poisoning working-class neighborhoods, predominantly Black cities, or minority communities without eventually confronting the direct consequences of this environmental terror.