Recently, PFAS has become a household name as the detrimental health effects of exposure become more widely known. This group of human-made chemicals has been manufactured extensively since the 1940s for nonstick coatings, stain and water-resistant products, firefighting foam, and more. While the use of PFAS compounds has declined in the US in recent years due to health and environmental concerns, their non-biodegradable properties mean that they are still present in our water, our soil, and even our blood.
Past legal action has revealed that PFAS manufacturers were aware of human health risks related to these substances for decades without disclosing that information to the government or the public. Studies have shown a link between PFAS in drinking water and higher rates of kidney cancer, testicular cancer, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, preeclampsia and lowered immune responses. Due to the growing public awareness of the effects of PFAS, more and more communities are demanding action to ensure that their drinking water is safe.
Municipalities, local businesses, and households are typically not to blame for the presence of PFAS in water supplies, but they are directly affected by the cost of treatment to maintain water quality. Testing for PFAS contaminants, purchasing water from other suppliers, and designing and constructing new treatment facilities, not to mention operating them for years into the future, can come with a price tag in the millions. Ratepayers, including local households and businesses, often end up paying for these costs in the form of higher water rates. This can be a significant setback for some. In fact, many businesses now view potential water concerns as an economic risk. The Carbon Disclosure Project, which disseminates an annual water security questionnaire for companies and their investors, estimates that water disruptions cost companies $301 billion globally in 2020.
By taking a proactive approach to water quality issues, municipalities can seek to hold the large corporations that manufactured the pollutants accountable while protecting ratepayers and local businesses from the high cost of water treatment. Staying ahead of water concerns helps attract and keep thriving businesses while showing constituents that their health and well-being is a priority. Municipalities that take action now also mitigate their risk of regulatory noncompliance in the near future, the new EPA proposed MCLs (maximum contaminant levels) for PFAS are likely to be implemented.
How Does Water Pollution Affect the Economy?
As consumers become more aware of the health risks associated with PFAS, the demand for transparency and action to reduce their exposure to the chemicals has increased. This is true even when the detected concentrations are well below current state MCLs or proposed national MCLs. In addition to the issue of PFAS in drinking water, some consumer brands have been the subject of public concern over the past several years due to the detection of PFAS in the finished products. This may result in new challenges for the companies that sell these products. While PFAS chemicals have been intentionally added to many products for their water-resistant, nonstick, and durable properties, some experts have speculated that products containing water may be inadvertently contaminated with PFAS from the source water where they are manufactured.
In one example, Consumer Reports tested a variety of bottled and sparkling water brands for PFAS in 2020. Seven of the twelve sparkling water brands they tested contained PFAS concentrations above 1 ppt (part per trillion), and two of those contained concentrations above 4 ppt, the new EPA proposed MCL for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. Phil Brown, co-director of the PFAS Project Lab at Northeastern University in Boston, said in the report that the elevated levels of PFAS in some water products could be due to higher PFAS concentrations in the source water.
In 2023, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Coca-Cola, alleging that its Simply Tropical brand fruit juice was marketed as an all-natural, healthy product, while the juice was found to contain PFAS amounts far above federal health advisory levels. The cause of the PFAS contamination in the juice has not yet been confirmed. The brand has not been found in violation of any current regulations, but customers were spurred to action because they expected a product advertised as natural to be free of PFAS.
Consumers & Businesses Demand Clean Water
Companies, especially in the food and beverage industry, are paying more attention to water quality and risks in current and potential production locations. In fact, the food and beverage sector uses about 70% of the world’s freshwater, making it highly vulnerable to water concerns.
PFAS issues can affect both water quality and quantity in the areas served by water systems. When groundwater wells are found to be out of compliance with state or federal regulations, the first step is often to remove those wells from service until the water can be sufficiently treated. As a result, the total available water supply may be reduced. Alternatively, water can be purchased from another jurisdiction to replace the lost water, but this often comes at an increased cost to local businesses and households. For companies that depend on water, this can present a challenge.
Both large and small businesses are analyzing the potential impact of water issues on their bottom line. In Molson Coors’ 2020 annual report to the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the beer company stated, “Even where water is widely available, water purification and waste treatment limitations could increase costs or constrain our operations.”
Prioritizing Water Quality for a Thriving Community
Municipalities with water systems that demonstrate readiness to tackle water contamination issues head-on and hold polluters responsible for the costs of treatment will be better prepared to protect local businesses from water-related risks. In selecting production locations, companies prioritize access to plentiful clean water. They are becoming more and more aware of public demand for products free from PFAS, not just at levels that meet current regulations. This means that some companies may view the presence of PFAS in the water supply used to produce their products as a potential hazard.
Acting now to remove PFAS from your water supply can help keep residents safe from related health concerns while also safeguarding your municipality against future concerns as new, lower MCLs are implemented at state and federal levels. In turn, this helps businesses that depend on an uninterrupted water supply, supporting a strong local economy.
Making Polluters, Not Ratepayers, Pay for PFAS Cleanup
While local businesses and consumers want consistent access to water free of contaminants, they should not have to foot the bill for cleaning up PFAS pollution caused by large corporations. One of the benefits of water pollution litigation for communities and businesses is that it aims to shift the cost of water treatment onto the chemical manufacturers. PFAS lawsuits seek to prevent ratepayers from paying high costs that could continue for many years.
Furthermore, there is no need to wait for the PFAS levels in your water supply to exceed regulatory levels before taking the first steps. Water providers can file a claim now, even if their PFAS detections are below current MCLs. This protects the system from future issues as the EPA’s newly proposed MCLs take effect, or if the system’s PFAS levels increase.
Filing a claim also shows that you will defend your ratepayers from the actions of polluting manufacturers, promoting a safe and healthy community for businesses and households.
Act Now to Protect Your Community from Water Risks
Even relatively low levels of PFAS in municipal water supplies can be concerning to the public, which may negatively affect local economies. If your water system has detected PFAS at any level, you may want to consider reaching out to a law firm with experience in water contamination litigation to learn about your options. The team at SL Environmental Law Group has over 20 years of experience handling exclusively water contamination cases, and we are ready to help municipalities that want to hold polluters accountable. Furthermore, there is no financial risk in taking immediate action, as there is no cost to the client unless a favorable outcome is achieved. To learn more, schedule a free consultation with the SL PFAS team.