115: Cleaning Up Toxic Compounds

Alan Roberson, Executive Director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, explains the growing interest in the risks of PFAS chemicals and the challenges some jurisdictions encounter when they want to do something about them; Phil...


Alan Roberson, Executive Director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, explains the growing interest in the risks of PFAS chemicals and the challenges some jurisdictions encounter when they want to do something about them; Phil Rooney with the Douglas County Health Department in Omaha, Nebraska, says it’s vital to keep a close eye on social media misinformation and disinformation and even more important to have a plan when rumors start spreading online; and David Carey, a disability advocate, says the 11th Annual African American Conference on Disabilities is for anyone interested in disability issues.

ASTHO Health Policy Prospectus: PFAS – Regulating Toxic Compounds

ASDWA Webpage: PFAS

ASDWA White Paper: Lessons Learned from States and Challenges Ahead in Setting State-Level Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Standards

NPHIC Webpage: Public Health Speaks podcast

Register: 11th Annual African American Conference on Disabilities

 

 

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Transcript

ROBERT JOHNSON:

This is Public Health Review Morning Edition for Wednesday, February 9th, 2022. I'm Robert Johnson.

Now, today's news from the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

 

Synthetic chemicals used in nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics, and other products pose hazards to people and the environment. That's why many states and territories are focused on the dangers of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

Alan Roberson is executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. He explains the growing interest in the risks of PFAS chemicals and the challenges some jurisdictions encounter when they want to do something about them. It's today's morning conversation.

These substances are all around us, but we know them by other names, and they're getting more and more attention these days from people in public health. Why is that?

ALAN ROBERSON:

Sure. I think it's because the typical consumer recognizes these names—Teflon, Scotchgard, STAINMASTER—and so, when they learn about them and they realize how long lasting they are in the environment and in the human body, there's concern.

And then, what we're seeing now is an action at the state level, so we're seeing state legislatures require my members—the state regulatory agencies—to develop their own standards or do investigations. And then a lot of times when you do the investigation, you find it—that leads to a standard.

So, it's really I'd say grassroots kind of interest, and people understanding and learning more about these products probably in the last, you know, three, four, or five years.

JOHNSON:

As you've mentioned, a lot of states are taking a look at ways to mitigate these chemicals. But is it tough sometimes to sell these laws to legislators in capitals around the country?

ROBERSON:

They can be. I mean, they're tough sells to the water agencies that have to put in the additional trimming to take these out, and then there's even some longer-term issues in folks trying to understand what happens with the floods or the biosolids that are generated by wastewater treatment. And there's been a few places where that material has been spread on farm land and then created problems with dairy farms—they found that milk based on land spreading. Sometimes it's industrial, they've had some wastewater plants have that issue.

So, I think it's really—it kind of depends on the area, but there are states that are in, their systems that are putting in treatment and it's a pretty substantial burden. So, that's why you're getting some blowback from it.

JOHNSON:

So, the cost of cleanup is the biggest obstacle?

ROBERSON:

Yeah.

I think a lot of it is the unknowns that there are. The class PFAS is a large chemical class that—I'm not a chemical engineer but, you know, there are a few thousand when we think right now, and we only have analytical methods for 20 or 30 or 40. And so, there's uncertainty about the balance of those.

And then also how bad are the 20 or 30 or 40 they were analyzing for, because a lot of those don't have health advisories. There's not really a human health benchmark. So then, you'll find something at a part per trillion and wonder, well, is this truly a health issue or not? So, there's just a whole lot of uncertainty surrounding what to do about these compounds.

JOHNSON:

Why should a jurisdiction take a look at this issue if it's not on the agenda currently?

ROBERSON:

Again, I think it goes back to what the consumers want. You know, if the voters and the consumers think it's important to have a regulation and to pay for the treatment then, you know, my personal perspective is that sure, that's what we need to do. You have to be responsive to the folks that are paying the bills ultimately, and putting a ballot in the ballot box.                        

A lot of this has been driven by state-level initiatives to either do the monitoring and then sometimes do the monitoring to set a standard. So, that's what the legislatures are asking for.

JOHNSON:

Efforts to regulate toxic PFAS compounds are among ASTHO's top 10 policy issues to watch in the new year. Read the policy briefing using the link in the show notes.

 

Communicators continue to play a critical role in the public health response to the COVID-19 virus.

Phil Rooney handles those duties for the Douglas County Health Department in Omaha, Nebraska.

PHIL ROONEY:

We're all aware of the need, that communications is an awful lot of what public health does. We educate, we inform, and we're kind of the channel through which a lot of that goes.

JOHNSON:

Like others standing watch during the pandemic, Rooney says it's vital to keep a close eye on social media, misinformation, and disinformation, and even more important to have a plan when rumors start spreading online.

ROONEY:

Well, we monitor very closely. And we keep pushing the same message so that if somebody hears something wrong once, we make sure they get the right information three or four times.

JOHNSON:

That said, Rooney admits he's been surprised by the actions of many reasonable social media users.

ROONEY:

One thing I have found on the social media when somebody posts something that I would describe as absurd, they usually are corrected by other folks on there. A lot of times, people don't take it and run with it, but they are self-correcting. So, that's one thing that's been a pleasant surprise.

JOHNSON:

You can hear the conversation on a new episode of Public Health Speaks, a podcast created by the National Public Health Information Coalition and hosted by its executive director Robert Jennings. That episode is coming soon everywhere you stream audio.

 

Finally today, a reminder that the 11th annual African American Conference on Disabilities continues online. There's a session tomorrow about self-advocacy and a discussion next Tuesday about government resources available to help voters with disabilities.

David Carey is one of the co-founders of the conference.

DAVID CAREY:

The conference is open to anyone, whether you have a disability or a professional with a disability or parent with a disability. And we also tell people that don't let the name fool you—African American Conference on Disabilities—it's open to any and everyone. Everyone can come and learn something. So, we encourage any and everyone to come. It's a very diverse conference.

JOHNSON:

The conference goes until February 17th. Register using the link in the show notes.

 

That'll do it for today's report.

 

Be sure to join us again tomorrow morning for more ASTHO news and information.

I'm Robert Johnson. You're listening to Public Health Review Morning Edition. Have a great day.

David Carey

COVID-19 Inclusivity Educator, Arizona Statewide Independent Living Council

Alan Roberson MSCE

Executive Director, Association of State Drinking Water Administrators

Phil Rooney

Resource Specialist, Douglas County Health Department