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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: City’s plan to address PFAS adds to comforts

The Columbian
Published: September 23, 2023, 6:03am

As we are frequently reminded, convenience comes with a cost. The ease of modern life, with innovations saving time and money in household chores, can have lingering environmental impacts.

Consider the case of “forever chemicals” — scientifically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. As the city of Vancouver and other areas have found, the artificial compounds can be troublesome and can be costly to deal with.

This week, city officials moved forward on a PFAS treatment system for Vancouver’s water supply. The city council approved a contract for preliminary design work on what could eventually be a $15.7 million project.

Engineering firm Brown and Caldwell has been awarded $718,700 for initial design, with funding coming from a $12.7 million grant through the state’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund. It is slightly comforting that Vancouver residents will not have to directly foot the entire bill; but the state fund is supported by state and federal money, meaning it comes from taxpayers, just in a roundabout fashion.

It is reasonable to question why the city needs to spend millions of dollars to treat something that only recently entered the public consciousness. The answer is that low levels of forever chemicals have been found drinking water, and they pose a danger.

According to Harvard University, studies have linked forever chemicals to several cancers, high cholesterol, thyroid disease, liver damage, asthma, allergies, reduced vaccine response in children, decreased fertility, newborn deaths, low birth weight, birth defects and delayed development.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Carmen Messerlian of Harvard’s School of Public Health. “This is only basically what we’ve been able to study. There’s probably a lot more impact. We just haven’t been able to do the science to be able to show it.”

The risks, mind you, are not high. But they are widespread, as PFAS compounds contaminate air, soil and water. And they earned the pejorative of “forever chemicals” because they break down very slowly in the environment while also accumulating in the blood of humans and animals.

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1694 to phase out the use of PFAS in Washington. The bill was supported by all Southwest Washington senators, along with Reps. Paul Harris, Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie. At the time, lead sponsor Rep. Liz Berry, D-Seattle, said: “We know that these chemicals threaten the health and safety of every plant, animal, and human that calls this state home. These chemicals should not be in our products.”

Eliminating those chemicals will not be easy. PFAS are commonly used in nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, cosmetics, firefighting foams, and products that resist grease, water, and oil — meaning they are abundant in the typical household. And as the New York Times reported last year, “When these multipurpose compounds are used in food packaging, they have a way of transferring to the food itself.”

They also have a way of ending up in water supplies. In February, Vancouver officials found that water at three of the city’s nine well fields exceeded permissible state levels that had been adopted in 2021. Other cities have had similar experiences, providing a reminder of the pervasiveness of the human-made chemicals.

That provides the impetus for Vancouver to design and construct a PFAS treatment facility for the city’s drinking water, adding to the cost of our modern comforts.