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PFAS Impact on Marginalized Communities: The Color of Contamination

Photo of a group of young climate activists in a city sitting and talking with signs

Understanding Environmental Injustice in PFAS Exposure

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are at the forefront of national and global attention, which has brought increased visibility to the problem. This concern about these substances has risen due to the impacts of PFAS on human health and the challenges we face in reducing human and environmental exposure to these persistent substances. In the past, we’ve touched on much of what’s known about PFAS exposure, including where it comes from, how it moves through the environment, and steps that industry can take to address the problem. Another aspect that has recently received attention is the environmental injustices of PFAS exposure. 

Environmental justice is defined by the US EPA as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” Conversely, environmental injustices are environmental contaminants or hazards that deprive people of the ability to live healthy lives disproportionately based on the color of their skin, their family histories, or any number of other factors that are a part of their lives.

The environmental justice movement was born in Warren County, North Carolina (NC) in 1982 with protests in response to a proposed landfill for polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB)-tainted soil. Even though the residents lost their legal battle, and the landfill was built, the protests brought attention to concerns about the location as being selected specifically due to the race, wealth, or political power of the community members. 

Linking Environmental Injustice to Racial and Economic Factors

Warren County has a higher proportion of Black and low income residents compared to other counties in the state. Subsequent environmental analysis studies showed that landfills and other waste disposal operations are more often located in predominately Black and Brown communities, producing an outcome that results in greater exposures to the hazards from those operations for minoritized communities

This phenomenon can often be linked to the historical practice of redlining, where federal lending companies refused to make loans to Black families to live in communities with higher values, producing racially segregated communities. These injustices have also been seen in relation to lower-income communities and occupational hazards in some low-wage professions.

Systemic Issues and Efforts to Address Environmental Injustice

Numerous studies have linked environmental hazards to racial/ethnic groups with less socioeconomic power, including wastewater discharge, flooding hazards, low quality-built infrastructure, air pollution, and the resulting health outcomes caused by these hazards.

Despite the government’s recognition of the problem in a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report in 1983 and an executive order from the Clinton Administration in 1994 (EO 12898), efforts to address environmental injustices have only addressed specific instances rather than resolving the systemic issues that allow the injustices to happen.

Environmental Justice and PFAS

Recent studies have shown that minoritized populations are bearing a disproportionate burden of exposure to PFAS. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health used mapping techniques and drinking water monitoring to show that Black and Hispanic people are more likely to have PFAS in their drinking water than people in other communities. This finding can be explained by the higher likelihood of Black and Hispanic communities to be located near sources of PFAS in the environment including manufacturers, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, and military installations.

This phenomenon is observed in North Carolina, as the highest amounts of PFAS are found in the Cape Fear River basin, particularly in Fayetteville (42.4% Black, 12.9% Hispanic, 18.7% of households in poverty per the 2020 census), Bertie county (61% Black, 21% of households in poverty), and Wilmington (17.4% of households in poverty and a significant population relying on sustenance fishing). The USEPA’s EJScreen tool, which compiles racial/ethnic and socioeconomic data along with environmental hazards, shows that the amount of underserved communities around the Cape Fear River in close proximity to wastewater discharge pollution sources is in the 82nd percentile compared to the rest of the country and 89th percentile compared to the rest of North Carolina (although it’s important to note that how the boundaries are drawn in the analysis can influence these figures). 

A recent study also found high levels of PFAS in air particles in Fayetteville, demonstrating that the discussion that has historically centered on water contamination is not the entire story. The environmental cycling of PFAS can also have a disproportionate impact on communities that rely on sustenance fishing for their nutrition including Tribal communities and low-income populations. A recent report to the UN Human Rights Council labeled the environmental contamination by a U.S. chemical company in this region a human rights violation.

Despite widespread public outcry, there is momentum to expand PFAS production capabilities in North Carolina, a response to the rapidly growing demand for PFAS that continues despite the known health risks of the class of chemicals.

Addressing PFAS Contamination: Moving Forward

Although much is already known about PFAS contamination and hot spots are beginning to emerge, the breadth of the problem has not fully emerged. Until recently, widespread testing for the suite of PFAS wasn’t being done, mostly due to lack of awareness of the problem and the fact that there wasn’t a standard validated analytical method to allow measurement of a wide range of PFAS compounds.

However, in January 2023, EPA initiated the Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR5) which will provide wider data on the presence of these compounds with a particular emphasis on water suppliers that serve small and medium-sized communities, including historically underserved communities across the country. The program, initiated as part of the Safe Drinking Water Act when it was amended in 1996, has been used to monitor chemicals that have not been regulated due to a lack of data on their toxicity and prevalence, and when the fifth rule was published initially in 2021, the focus was almost entirely on PFAS.

The first dataset from UCMR5 was published in August 2023, which will allow researchers to get insights into the broader presence of PFAS and allow them to see where problems exist so they can begin to support communities that are exposed to the chemicals. For example, of the 50 small-sized Primary Water Suppliers in North Carolina that reported UCMR5 results to EPA, 26% reported levels of PFOS in excess of health-based reference concentrations and 18% reported PFOA levels above health-based reference concentrations.

In April of 2024, the EPA also finalized its first ever regulation of six PFAS compounds in drinking water.

RTI will play a large part in that process through our work to measure environmental presence of PFAS, understand its toxicology, and to support communities impacted by environmental justice concerns that need funding and resource support to address this burgeoning environmental justice concern.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by James Harrington (Research Chemist, Fellow), Imari Walker-Franklin (Research Chemist), Jennifer Hoponick Redmon (Senior Director, Environmental Health and Water Quality), and Jamie Pero Parker (Innovation Advisor) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.