Backyard Talk

Cleaning up PFAS from the environment- and from our drinking water

By : Lauren Maranto
The analysis of water quality is a critical to both the environment and our daily lives. Water quality is often measured by the presence or lack of metals, toxins, and nutrients, and allows us to determine how these levels may affect human health. Although in the past we have focused on these determinants of water quality, recent attention has been brought to a chemical group called Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and their effect on human health.
According to the EPA, PFAS are a group of chemicals that include PFOS and GenX, among many others. These are a cause for concern not only for their prevalence in our daily lives, but also because they are highly persistent in the environment and in the human body, meaning that they do not break down and will therefore continue to accumulate over time.
PFAS have been used all over the globe, in products including cookware, stain repellents, and fire retardant foams. According to the EPA guide on PFAS, they can be found in things such as household products, waste from production facilities, and living organisms (including fish, animals, and humans). They can even be found in food due to contaminated packaging and processing, or in our drinking water.
Due to their persistence in the environment, PFAS are more likely to leach and spread through environmental processes, allowing them to leach into the water and affect areas further from the source. This has been a common occurrence with the use of fire retardant foams, which release PFAS that are then carried into streams and lakes through runoff, contaminating the water. It also leaches into the soil, which can contaminate crops. Therefore, people can be exposed to low levels of PFAS through exposure to contaminated water, soil, food packaging, and equipment used in manufacturing, according to the EPA. More direct exposure may also occur in an industrial facility that produces PFAS or at any large site that uses firefighting foams.
According to a recent report by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an organization dedicated to the implementation of strong chemical policy, approximately 110 million people in 39 states are exposed to drinking water that has been contaminated by PFAS. Studies have linked exposure to some PFAS to adverse health effects, including elevated cholesterol levels, weakened immune system, cancer, decreased infant birth weights, and thyroid hormone disruption. This is a serious, widespread issue that will not go away on its own, and action must be taken to clean up these communities.
However, the communities that have been affected by PFAS are taking initiative, spreading support and awareness for this issue. Toxic Action Center has worked with community leaders in these areas to form the National PFAS Contamination Coalition, a group that works with community groups to share their stories, information, and strategies to spread awareness and reduce the presence of PFAS. For more information on the coalition’s work, contact Shaina Kasper, Vermont State Director and New Hampshire Community organizer, at In addition, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families has worked with Congress to pass a provision allowing the commercial use of PFAS-free firefighting foam, and are now working on implementing these in locations across the world. For more information on their work to clean up drinking water, visit the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families report.
Although this issue is being addressed, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of the continued clean up and monitoring of PFAS. However, we are optimistic that the increased awareness and understanding of this chemical hazard will allow for better regulation of PFAS in the future.

Homepage Water News

Dioxin in Drinking Water Wells in MI

A heated community meeting, in Michigan over water concerns in Otsego was conducted Saturday afternoon at the city’s middle school. The Allegan County Health Department hosted an open house for residents, followed by a presentation and Q & A. But, those there say they left the meeting with more questions than answers causing tensions to run high at that meeting in Otsego.
“It’s just due to the time frame and waiting and anticipating these results,” says Mary Zack. Zack was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 17, she started the group Justice for Otsego to get some answers about water and health concerns in her community.
But, after waiting 60 days for results on environmental testing of the city’s water, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says the lab they used made errors when testing Otsego’s water. Read more.

Homepage Water News

North Carolina officials ‘failing’ after Florence coal ash spills

Environmental activists want more testing and accountability following coal ash breaches at two Duke Energy sites.
Critics contend that officials have been too slow to collect water samples and hold the utility accountable after gray muck from ash pits flooded into the Neuse and Cape Fear rivers last month.
Read More.

Backyard Talk

Climate Change: The Elephant in the Room

Hurricanes Michael, Florence, Harvey, Sandy, Katrina. Once in 500-year superstorms that are hitting land once every 3 years including twice this year. Deadly wildfires that have devastated parts of California. Torrential rains that have caused massive flooding in parts of Asia. A punishing heat wave that killed dozens in Japan, South Korea and parts of Europe. Melting glaciers in both the north and south poles.
Are these events related to climate change? While there’s growing evidence that they are, some climate deniers continue to ignore it all and point to what scientists have been saying for years – that no one weather event can definitely be blamed on climate change. However, it’s getting tougher to say this with so many crazy weather events occurring.
Last week the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading scientific panel on climate change, released a report that supported the link between these and similar weather events and climate change.   One of the co-chairs of the research group that released this report put it this way, “One of the key messages that comes out very strongly from this report is that we are already seeing the consequences of 1°C of global warming through more extreme weather, rising sea levels and diminishing Arctic sea ice, among other changes.”
The report goes on to talk about the need to make “…unprecedented changes…” and for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities.” It provides “policymakers and practitioners the information they need to make decisions that tackle climate change…” Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC working group, called the next few years “probably the most important in our history.”
The media did cover the release of this powerful report, as it covered the impact of the superstorm hurricanes Michael and Florence and other incredible weather events that have struck the world in recent years. But for how long? These events are quickly pushed off the front pages and soon forgotten except for a brief follow-up as the media moves on to the next big story, whether it’s the confirmation of a Supreme Court justice, the killing of a Washington Post reporter in Turkey or the latest crazy tweet by our president. Of course these other news stories need to be covered, but the impact of climate change is becoming the most important news story of our time.
Instead, there’s so much going on every day, at times at every moment it seems, that it’s hard to sustain interest in the intense weather events that just won’t stop. As the planet goes through drastic changes, Trump continues to tweet about nonsense. Something has to change. If we believe the scientists like the IPCC work group who continue to provide evidence that man-made carbon emissions are causing an increase in world-wide warming, then the media needs to help the public understand the importance of this situation. The media needs to tell the story of climate change in a way that will help bring about the changes we need to survive. Who else has the reach? How else do we get to unprecedented changes?


Huge Win for Local Residents as Tonawanda Coke Closes its Doors

The Tonawanda Coke plant near Buffalo, NY, closed its doors this past Sunday marking a huge victory for the local residents who have fought for years to shut down the facility. Read more here.

Backyard Talk News Archive

Many Communities Don’t Have the Complexion for Protection

Charlie Powell in Birmingham, Alabama has waited since 2005 for action from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Instead he gets the run around. Why? Because like so many other communities that we work with they are poor and African American. They have the wrong complexion for real protection.
Instead of stopping the air emissions of an industrial coke plant or properly cleaning up the contaminated soils throughout the community EPA and health authorities gave each family a piece of paper. It included a list of things they should do, not the polluter, to avoid exposures to chemicals in their air and backyard soils.
“Undress the children at the doorway so any chemical that gets onto their clothes and shoes will not be tracked into the home.” Really. Every teenager wants to strip down to their underclothing at the front door in front of their brother, sister and entire family.
If you are a vulnerable person like a pregnant woman or asthmatic child, the recommendation was, “don’t inevitably breathe the air or come in contact with the soil.” I guess that means hold your breath while outdoors.
EPA’s also concluded that, “past and current exposure to arsenic found in surface soil of some residential yards could harm people’s health. Children are especially at risk.”
Now if this was a white, middle- or high-income neighborhood do you think that the actions or lack of them with such strong health risk conclusions would be treated the same? I don’t.
The site consists of an area of lead, arsenic, and benzo(a)pyrene (BaP)-contaminated soil from multiple possible sources, including nearby facility smoke stack emissions and coke oven battery emissions, as well as from possible flooding along Five Mile Creek. The 35th Avenue site and surrounding area include two coke oven plants, asphalt batch plants, pipe manufacturing facilities, steel producing facilities, quarries, coal gas holder and purification system facility, and the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.
Clearly, the North Birmingham community has the wrong complexion for protection.
But they are not alone. In Uniontown, AL a very similar story is playing out.
Uniontown is 30 miles west of Selma, and is home to families that are 84% African American, almost half of whom live under the poverty level. Despite its proximity to a town famous for its civil rights marches, families still feel very much tied to its past. Many residents know which plantations enslaved their great-grandparents, and people as young as 50 remember growing up with sharecropper parents and no running water or toilets. Uniontown’s polluters include a massive landfill next to the historic black cemetery that started accepting coal ash after a spill of the waste in Tennessee. There’s the pungent odor from a cheese plant that has released its waste into a local creek and then there’s the waste water from the catfish processing plant, which contributes to an overwhelmed sewage system that spills fecal matter into local waterways.
People are afraid to drink their water.
A local farmer, Alex Jones, takes people on a tour pointing out the runoff from the cheese factory. “See that, that looks like a lake, it’s runoff.” It’s not only ugly but stinks. A leader of a Riverkeeper group described it as, “one of the worst smells ever. The smell is so putrid you immediately start dry heaving. It makes your body involuntarily try to throw up.”
Again, this would not be the situation in a middle class, higher income area as they have the complexion and income for government’s protection.
When asked why the families don’t move away from Uniontown, Phyllis from the local community group Black Belt Citizens said, “We don’t give up because the end result is to run us off the land and make the entire community a landfill. So what are your choices?”
The American Public Health Journal study published in April found that black people are more burdened by air pollution than any other group, even when taking poverty into account. And the agency has taken years or even decades to respond to all complaints.
EPA has faced criticism on civil rights issues around a number of contaminated sites in the state. Earlier this year, the agency denied Uniontown’s environmental racism complaint.
Today with the hurricanes and associated record rains, innocent families across the south will be in more danger than ever before from widespread contamination from coal ash, industrial run off, pig manure, and yes, even putrid smelling cheese factory waste. Such communities need protection that is equal to that of white and higher income families.
Water doesn’t stay still. Air doesn’t stay still. Nor are the families in contaminated communities willing to stay still. They are fighters as they have everything to lose – their land, their health and the future for their families. I’m proud and honored to stand with them and continue to fight for justice and invite you to join us.

Homepage News Archive Water News

You Want to See Racism in Action? Look at Where We Dump Our Toxic Waste.

The Civil Rights Movement was about more than voting and lunch counters. It was also about the right of all Americans to live and work in a healthy, safe place. (Voting rights aren’t much good if you can’t walk to the polls because your asthma is bad that day.) That was why Dr. King had moved on to the Poor People’s Campaign at the time of his murder.
There is in Alabama a poisoned place called Uniontown. Its residents are primarily African-American. In no particular order, they have seen dumped on or near their places of abode coal ash, cheese waste, wastewater from a nearby catfish processing plant. All of that overtaxes the place’s antiquated sewage system until it starts giving up its proper contents all over the ground and into the rivers and groundwater. The people who live there know why this is the case, as this study from the Pew Charitable Trusts discovered.  Read more.

Superfund News

Local Residents Trained for Jobs at CO Superfund Site

15 Pueblo-area residents graduated from the EPA’s Superfund Job Training Initiative program on September 27th. Graduates of the program now have the necessary skills to be considered for future jobs with the environmental contractors cleaning up lead and arsenic contamination at the site.  Read more.

Water News

Water Water Everywhere But Not a Drop to Drink

This is the third coal ash spill that’s been reported since Florence’s historic rainfall caused catastrophic flooding throughout the state. Duke Energy, the country’s largest electric company, has been fighting attempts to force clean-up of these ponds for years. President Donald Trump’s administration has also loosened several regulations on coal ash storage.
In addition to coal ash spills, at least 110 ponds of pig feces have either released their contents into the environment or are at “imminent risk of doing so,” The New York Times reported on Wednesday. Those spills are presenting health concerns, too. “You basically have a toxic soup for people who live in close proximity to those lagoons,” Sacoby Wilson, a professor of public health at the University of Maryland, told Vice News. “All of these contaminants that are in the hog lagoons, like salmonella, giardia, and E-coli, can get into the waterways and infect people trying to get out.”
Read more.


Let’s Honor the Indigenous Communities Leading the Way on Climate Justice

When Christopher Columbus landed on Turtle Island, which we now call North America, he brought with him a goal of making profit—of taking from the land and people to create commerce. Today, approximately 526 years later, that same pillaging continues to drive our planet further into the climate crisis and lead us into ecological collapse. Instead of honoring the violent colonization Columbus represents, we should use this day to call for truth and reconciliation—and honor the Indigenous communities at the forefront of efforts to heal the long-lasting environmental harm Columbus and his ilk have wrought. Read more.