PARCHMENT, Mich. – The day this small town told its residents to stop drinking the water, Jennifer and Justin Koehler decided to sell their white clapboard house and move their two children elsewhere.
Sara and Matt Dean, who had relocated several years earlier from Chicago, started worrying about the health of their young son and the baby arriving soon.
And Tammy Cooper felt a welling indignation that would turn her into an activist – one who would travel to Washington to push for action on the unregulated chemicals contaminating her family's drinking water and that of millions of other Americans.
That late July day, this town along the banks of the Kalamazoo River became the latest community affected by a ubiquitous, unregulated class of compounds known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS.
The man-made chemicals have long been used in a wide range of consumer products, including nonstick cookware, water-repellent fabrics and grease-resistant paper products, as well as in firefighting foams. But exposures have been associated with an array of health problems, among them thyroid disease, weakened immunity, infertility risks and certain cancers. The compounds do not break down in the environment.
In Parchment, where they were once used by a long-shuttered paper mill, tests found PFAS levels in the water system in excess of 1,500 parts per trillion – more than 20 times the Environmental Protection Agency's recommended lifetime exposure limit of 70 parts per trillion.
Local officials promptly alerted residents. Michigan officials declared a state of emergency. Residents started picking up free cases of bottled water at the high school. Within weeks, the town abandoned the municipal wells that had served 3,000 people and began getting water from nearby Kalamazoo.
“This is not a problem you can run away from,” Cooper said. “There are Parchments across the country.”
Harvard University researchers say public drinking-water supplies serving more than 6 million Americans have tested for the chemicals at or above the EPA's threshold – which many experts argue should be far lower to safeguard public health. The level is only an agency guideline; the federal government does not regulate PFAS.
The compounds' presence has rattled communities from Hoosick Falls, New York, to Tucson. They have been particularly prevalent on or near military bases, which have long used PFAS-laden foams in training exercises.
Both houses of Congress held hearings on the problem this year, and lawmakers introduced bills to compel the government to test for PFAS chemicals nationwide and to respond wherever water and soil polluted by them are found. In late November, the head of the EPA vowed that the agency would soon unveil a “national strategy” to address the situation.
“There are some very real human impacts from this stuff,” said Erik Olson, a drinking-water expert for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Most people have no idea they are being exposed.”