When Maria Collett began knocking on doors as a Pennsylvania state Senate candidate in 2018, she heard one thing over and over: Do something about the drinking water.
Collett, a registered nurse and attorney from Lower Gwynedd Township, heard it from mothers who reminded her of herself. From a man who struggled with what to tell his children about the tap water they drank. From a woman who required life-altering surgery to treat a condition that could be linked to the chemicals that had been widely discovered in the local water supply.
Residents in the Horsham, Warrington, and Warminster Township areas were more than frustrated with government responses to the water-contamination crisis that has affected 90,000 in Bucks and Montgomery Counties and an estimated 19 million nationwide. They were scared. Exposure to PFAS chemicals has been connected to cancer, thyroid disease, immune-system problems, decreased fertility, and lower birth weight.
The federal response to PFAS contamination has been slow and piecemeal, even as residents in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and a handful of other states have clamored for aid, testing, and a nationwide safe drinking-water standard. In February, the EPA said it would take several years to establish such a standard; until then, the EPA will continue to rely on a nonbinding advisory level for drinking water that the federal government’s own scientists have suggested doesn’t go far enough to protect public health.
Now, seven states including Pennsylvania are taking unprecedented steps to set their own drinking-water limits, effectively seizing one of the EPA’s key roles. Officials are navigating uncharted territory, with varying amounts of funding and political will, hoping state-level standards can circumvent — and pressure — the federal agency.
“This is about making sure that our kids are safe. It’s about making sure that [people are] not suffering from side effects just because they were drinking water out of their tap,” said Collett, who was elected in November and joined a group of legislators in Harrisburg who have introduced bills to clean up the mess.