Environmental concerns are not new. The pivotal publication in 1962 of Silent Spring, written by Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, sparked concern and debate about the indiscriminate use of pesticides. She posited a fictional town where spring arrived without the sounds of birds and other wildlife. Manmade chemicals had infiltrated the entire ecosystem to eliminate many lifeforms. The chemical industry defended its products while Ms. Carson predicted catastrophic consequences if pesticide use was left unchecked. Amid a storm of controversy and critical praise and condemnation, DDT was banned in the United States. Also, just prior to the release of the book, it was revealed that thalidomide was linked to birth defects and it was also banned from distribution in the U.S.
The constant push-pull between market forces and environmental concerns continues to this day. With increased product longevity, effects that are both welcome and deleterious are revealed. Typically, consumers become aware of these issues when a protective agency or association releases findings developed over many months or years. Recently, one of the most ubiquitous and troubling concerns to reach widespread public attention is water quality. On the East Coast, Newark, New Jersey has joined Flint, Michigan – although from different problems – combating high levels of lead in public water systems.
Across the country, another menace has become known by the acronym, PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are stable chemicals that repel water and oil and have been used extensively since the 1950s. Unfortunately, these substances can be carried by water and do not break down easily. A wide variety of products contain PFAS: carpets, clothing, non-stick pans, paints, polishes, waxes, cleaning products, and food packaging. Firefighting foam containing PFAS is used by military and firefighting facilities as well. As a result, groundwater can absorb this contaminant. Multi-year studies are now underway to determine the effects of significant exposure to this class of chemicals.
A tracking database of the presence of PFAS by Northeastern University, Boston is available and, according to the data shown, this area has either extremely low or no excessive, reportable levels of these chemicals in our local water. According to the State of Rhode Island Department of Health, “Studies show that human exposure to PFAS is widespread and most people in the United States and in other industrialized countries have measurable amounts of PFAS in their blood.” As with any ubiquitous chemical, caution is a good path to follow. It is a great relief to view the database of questionable levels of PFAS and find that, although military installation use of firefighting foam is listed, our local municipal water districts are not.
This is a reminder to all of us of the importance of guarding the quality of our infrastructure. Environmental concerns are real and it is only through vigilance and competence of protective agencies – international, national, regional, local – that the public can avoid what Carson called “a chain of poisoning and death.” Currently, Amazon rain forests are burning and many don’t care. In the midst of environmental crisis, it is easy to look the other way and pretend such actions do not affect us. Carson says, “It is human nature to shrug off what may seem to us a vague threat of future disaster.” She concluded then, and it remains even more clear today, “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road— the one ‘less traveled by'— offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”
Our springs are not yet silent… let’s keep it that way.