Communicating PFAS Contamination: Best Practices for Water Utilities


Public concern about PFAS and regulation of the family of chemicals are both escalating rapidly. Americans rank contaminated drinking water as one of the top risks to public health, while the EPA recently announced its proposed maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and Perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) - two common types of PFAS substances. Under the proposed MCLs, drinking water utilities across the country would be mandated to respond if concentrations are found in excess of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) by either taking the contaminated sources out of service or treating the contaminated sources.

These proposed maximum contaminant levels are based on science recognizing health risks associated with exposure to PFOA or PFOS in drinking water at near-zero concentrations. To take one example of many, studies indicate that children with previously considered low levels of PFAS in their blood were not responding to common childhood vaccinations.  

Because the level of concern is so high for even a microscopic amount of PFAS, creating and using a proactive, calm, and balanced messaging strategy is key to successfully engaging with stakeholders without raising fear levels.

The growing importance of creating a PFAS communication strategy 

Circulating news about PFAS has prompted several questions from the public about concerns over the safety of their drinking water. Talking to water customers, community members, and the media about PFAS is an important and growing responsibility for water providers across the US. 

Effective communication in this era of heightened anxieties surrounding water safety and environmental crises begins with identifying and developing an appropriate messaging strategy. Consulting with utility employees, local government officials, and health departments to craft a measured and informative message is critical before going public. Collaborating as a team with all these groups will help the flow of information stay consistent across the board.

Many utilities who have experienced water quality incidents have already engaged their communities in successful communication following the situation. These agencies have set a good precedent for others to follow in the wake of an incident. A few examples worth checking out are the WRD PFAS remediation program, the State of California, and PFAS in Orange County. 

Best practices for crisis and emergency risk communications 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a useful set of principles for conducting communication before, during, and after a crisis or emergency that is a helpful starting point when addressing an issue with the public. Many agencies that have successfully communicated with constituents in response to a water quality incident have employed similar practical tactics in their messaging. 

The six key points the CDC emphasizes when devising communication in an emergency include:

1. Be First

People remember and rely upon the first source of information that they find. Relaying time-sensitive information quickly from the start is advantageous.

2. Be Accurate

Use plain language to explain the situation and express what information is known or not known at that moment. Overly technical language can frustrate and confuse readers. 

3. Be Credible

Speak honestly and truthfully. Communicating with transparency and accuracy will make you a trusted source of information.

4. Be Empathetic

Messaging should speak to all the needs of the affected community. Use words and body language that promote understanding and compassion for the harm that the issue may have caused.

5. Promote Action

People want to know how they can lessen their exposure to contaminants in a practical way and what you, the utility, are doing to rectify the situation. Detailing the next steps in a situation is comforting, and action points can help provide purpose in times of uncertainty. 

6. Show Respect

Attempts to over-reassure or suppress information often cause more harm than good. The best way to show respect in messaging about water quality risks is to be open and candid.

If news and/or social media have run with the story before your agency was able to issue a statement, the best thing to do is respond directly as soon as possible. Issue correct information to establish credibility while showing empathy and respect and outline a plan of action. Ensuring that good information is available wherever people will look for it, but don’t engage with Internet trolls or troublemakers to extend negative aspects of the situation. Be wary of being too active on social media.

Plain language and context are key

Communications experts advise that unnatural terms like “endocrine disruptors” should be avoided, as they do not communicate anything familiar, acceptable, or safe to the public. A different way to say this using plain language would be “natural or man-made chemicals that could interfere with the body’s hormones.” Non-technical audiences may not know what PFAS are when they first hear of them. Respectfully explain the situation and contaminants. Providing context to advanced terminology is an opportunity to diffuse heightened tensions by using plain language.

PFAS can be described as a family of man-made chemicals that have been produced since the 1930s. PFAS chemicals first appeared as non-stick coatings in the 1940s. Since then, these chemicals have been used in stain and water-resistant products, protective coatings, firefighting foam and waterproof fabrics. Due to concerns about the potential health and environmental impacts, there has been a reduction in the manufacture and use of PFAS. 

 People have dubbed PFAS as “forever” chemicals because they do not decompose naturally and are widely distributed, so they are found in everything from the dirt we walk on to the air we breathe. They can be found in groundwater sources, and when they are consumed, they build up in organs such as the kidneys and the liver. 

Providing context in messaging about potential risks is another way to ease concerns surrounding a water quality incident. For example, instead of expressing risk in “one in a million” terms, American Water Works Association (AWWA) suggests reframing it in a feasible way to the public. An example is how many glasses of water someone would have to drink per day to feel the effects of the contaminants. 

What should a system do once it finds contamination in its water source?

Utilities that tackle water contamination directly by using plain language while expressing empathy and commitment to resolution are often the most successful. There is mounting evidence that proactively communicating about the situation using the tactics outlined above will benefit affected customers by keeping them updated and well-informed, and is an ethical response to a PFAS water quality incident. 

Communicating about the problem is one key aspect of an overall response strategy. When it comes to what the plan of action entails, there are a few routes for water agencies to take, one of them being legal action to hold corporate polluters accountable. If you are weighing your options and looking for advice on how to proceed, we have outlined what the process looks like here.

Looking to speak with one of our lawyers about water contamination in your system?