From Apathy to Activism in the Fight for Clean Water

Pregnant women in Massachusetts are being told not to drink bottled water out of concern that perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) have been found in several bottled brands from stores like Whole Foods, CVS and Stop & Shop. The state issued an advisory instructing pregnant women, breastfeeding moms and infants not to drink those brands to avoid the danger toxic PFAS chemicals pose to their pregnancies. 

But the state’s warning to pregnant women and parents of infants is, at its best, a partial solution. It won’t provide answers to people who already drank this contaminated water, nor will it prevent similar crises from happening again.

Thunderbird Woman Rising during a guerrilla street painting action outside Wells Fargo World Headquarters in San Francisco to protest funding for fossil fuel pipelines and projects organized by Idle No More SF Bay and allies. (Peg Hunter / Creative Commons)

Growing up, I personally never thought about what was in the water I was drinking. I had juvenile concerns, like how high I could get my swing without face planting into the gravel or how many chalk stains I could really get on my jeans. Water was rarely a concern for me—it seemed easily accessible, whether it was through the hose in the backyard or the sink in the kitchen. I always had a source to quench my thirst. 

As I got older, things became more complicated. People began to become weary of the tap water in my small, rural hometown of Spring Valley, Illinois. Our water has low levels of radioactive chemicals and disinfection byproducts that can cause cancer and problems during pregnancy. For us, bottled water became the safest option for drinking. 

Now, it feels like Americans are almost constantly hearing about new dangerous contaminants in our drinking water. I am just starting to learn about toxic chemicals and how they are affecting our water and our health—and as an intern with Sierra Club’s Gender, Equity & Environment team, I’m learning the problem is ballooning because our government has failed to regulate chemical contamination in our water from the start.

Before I started working at Sierra Club, I had never even heard of PFAS. You can imagine my shock when I discovered that over 100 million Americans are drinking tap water with PFAS chemicals, and virtually every American has the chemical in our blood.

PFAS are a family of man-made chemicals that have been polluting our drinking water for decades and are used in the production of everyday products. Due to lack of regulations, I’m learning how mega-corporations are inflicting a widespread toxic contamination crisis by producing these chemicals and sneaking them in products like cooking ware via Teflon coatings, fast food packaging and even using them in firefighting foams used at airports and military bases. I know now that these chemicals are not only just in our tap water, but sometimes in bottled water, too.

Now, I’m utterly confused. How do you avoid drinking contaminated water? Is bottled water even that much safer? What about people who can’t afford to buy it? We should be testing all sources of water—bottled and tap—so we know how what we’re putting in our body affects our health.

It’s clear we cannot avoid every single interaction with toxic chemicals, and our de-facto approach—advising families to spend more money on products like bottled water that are “safer”—isn’t effective. Too often, harmful contamination is discovered by accident, and instead of laws, we leave it to industry to make voluntary efforts to reduce our exposure to harmful chemicals. The bottled water industry launched a voluntary effort to test their water for PFAS, but who knows what the next new problem will be.

Exposure to PFAS chemicals has been linked to breast and reproductive system cancers and complications like endometriosis. Doctors tell us most of these chemicals disrupt human hormones, harming fertility and the ability to have a healthy pregnancy. As a young woman hoping to have children one day, I cannot help but worry about the implications these chemicals have on my own future, but also my future children and family.

I’m sure many, many women feel that sentiment. Certainly, many others are leading the way forward. Dedicated women are fighting to make polluters pay for the damage and contamination to water they’ve caused, and for community protections. Loreen Hackett, Sandy Wynn-Stelt and organizations like Clean Cape Fear are all rising against corporations and fighting against PFAS chemicals.

This Water Quality Month, I’ve been inspired by grassroots work happening across the country. I am now a firm believer that change can only happen when we break through and shift the system that has been falling short for years, and I’m dedicated to choosing activism over apathy.

I’m committed to being a water protector that will hold polluters accountable and change the system—so that my future children, and their children’s children, can live in a world where our health and environment means more than filling the pockets of industry interests.