PFAS: A Toxic Legacy Building in Illinois

PFAS: A Toxic Legacy Building in Illinois
These tongue-twister chemicals pose a danger to us, wildlife and our water resources.

By: Iyana Simba, IEC Clean Water Policy Director

By now, it is likely that you have heard of “PFAS chemicals” or Per-and polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). For those who haven’t, you most certainly have interacted with them, probably on a daily basis for many years now.

PFAS are a large group of man-made chemicals unique in their ability to repel oil and water, reduce friction and are flame retardant. They are used in a range of everyday products like water repellant apparel, carpet, nonstick food ware, grease resistant food wrappers as well as firefighting foam. In fact, firefighting foams used at military bases, airports and fire departments in fire training drills are a major source of PFAS contamination.

Unfortunately, what makes them useful and durable is also what makes them a problem. PFAS are coined “forever chemicals”, because they resist degradation. Instead of breaking down entirely, they accumulate in our water, soil, food and even in our bodies. Studies have linked prolonged exposure to PFAS to thyroid disorders, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, low birth rates and cancer among other troubling health conditions.

What’s happening at the national level
Recognizing this as a national issue, Congress has introduced and passed several PFAS measures. Most notably, with the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2020, the Department of Defense has been charged to create a PFAS-free alternative firefighting foam by October 2024. Similarly, under the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration will no longer require U.S. airports to phase to use PFAS-firefighting foam, opening the door for use of alternative foams, by October of this year.

Action at the federal level hasn’t yet made its way into a federal drinking water standard for PFAS. In 2016, the US EPA set a non-enforceable Health Advisory level, at 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, two of the thousands of PFAS chemicals. This is a level which many experts agree is inadequate as there are lower thresholds already established or being proposed at the state level by Michigan, New York, New Hampshire, New Jersey and California among others.

What’s more, states have increasingly identified groundwater and waterways contaminated by PFAS. While many known contamination sites are along the East and West coasts, PFAS are an emerging issue in the Great Lakes region. We know they are especially pervasive in Michigan, where the state’s PFAS task force has identified 156 contamination sites. Similarly, in Ohio, the state’s Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 100 contamination sites

In September the Illinois EPA announced a statewide PFAS investigation into the prevalence of PFAS in drinking water. The sampling is expected to be completed sometime this Fall. However, the D.C.-based, Environmental Working Group has already found eight sites of contamination in Illinois:  Freeport, Galesburg, Belvidere, Peoria International Airport, Bloomington, Springfield, Rantoul and Rock Island [1]

The Illinois Environmental Council (IEC) believes that the IEPA’s efforts to identify PFAS contamination sources in Illinois will help quantify the scope of the problem. Armed with this needed information, advocates will be in a much stronger position to make the case for action at the state and local levels, including the development of drinking water standards for PFAS chemicals.

What Needs to Happen in Illinois
There is no reason why Illinois should not be among the states taking proactive steps to protect communities from the harmful effects of PFAS-contaminated drinking water. The evidence of the problem will only continue to mount as we identify increasing numbers of PFAS contamination sources. The health impacts will not subside on their own. And the size of the problem will only grow as the state delays action.

Comprehensive federal action, while necessary, continues to face an uphill battle, highlighting the need for state policy solutions. Other states are not waiting to act. For example several states including Michigan, Colorado, Washington, Maine and New York have proposed or adopted bans or restrictions on PFAS-containing firefighting foam. 

In addition to supporting the IEPA’s statewide drinking water testing investigation, IEC has partnered with State Senator Laura Ellman to advance legislation (SB561) during the 2021 legislative session to phase out the use of PFAS-containing firefighting foam and ban the sale and manufacture of such foam. This bill has already passed from the Senate floor and we expect it to have the support needed to pass in the House and earn Gov. Pritzker’s signature. When that happens, Illinois will have taken an important, early step in addressing PFAS contamination in our state. Finally, as affordable and effective PFAS alternatives become available, Illinois should establish a takeback program for firefighting foams containing PFAS.

Illinois can take the lead on reducing and eliminating PFAS, clean up contamination and hold polluters accountable. The actions outlined above are a good start. All Illinoisans deserve access to clean, affordable drinking water, and at the end of the day, we believe that simple fact will become a reality for communities throughout the state of Illinois. Until then, our work protecting clean water for all does not stop.

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