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Why a Small Change to an EPA Webpage on Drinking Water Chemical Advisories Matters

The sentence highlighted in green was added to the EPA webpage “Drinking Water Health Advisories for PFOA and PFOS” between May 16, 2018 (left) and July 31, 2018 (right). 

Welcome! This post is part of the EDGI Website Monitoring Team’s “Change of the Week” blog series. The purpose of this series is to highlight interesting changes we have observed in the language used on, or access to, federal websites. We want to share these changes to encourage public engagement with and discussion of their significance, as well as understanding of the ephemeral nature of website information. This week’s change occurred between May and July 2018 and is about a sentence that was added to an EPA webpage about drinking water health advisories for PFOA and PFOS chemicals.

What happened? Between May 16 and July 31, 2018, the following sentence was added to an EPA webpage providing basic and technical information about drinking water health advisories issued by the agency for PFOA and PFOS chemicals:

“There is limited information identifying health effects from inhalation or dermal exposures to PFOA or PFOS in humans and animals.”

Why we think it’s interesting: It’s not entirely clear what prompted this addition. The scientific basis and likely source for this sentence can be found in these reports:

The first two of these documents were published in 2016 and can be accessed from the original webpage through a link in the same paragraph the sentence was added. The third listed was published by CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry in June 2018.

This sentence has also appeared in several other webpages and documents outside of the EPA domain (www.epa.gov). Of note is a request filed by the U.S. Air Force for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico to dismiss a case brought by the New Mexico Environment Department regarding the presence of PFOA and PFOS chemicals used in firefighting foam at  air force bases. We found this case document cites this sentence to argue there is limited evidence that dermal contact with the chemicals from community members around the airbase would present a serious health risk.

From “State of New Mexico, ex rel. Hector Balderas, Attorney General, and the New Mexico Environment Department (Plaintiffs), v. United States of America and United States Department of the Air Force (Defendants)

This novel text also appeared on a Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation webpage reproducing the first four paragraphs of the same EPA webpage on PFOA and PFOS chemicals. A blog post found on the website for a Massachusetts based water filtration business, as well as another blog post on a now defunct website about brewing beer referenced the same information, with the latter citing the added sentence word for word in a post discussing PFOS in water.

The appearance of this sentence across the web shows how information on the EPA website can spread and affect public understanding of issues such as PFOA and PFOS chemicals. The U.S. Air Force and Tennessee DEC’s references to the EPA’s PFOA/PFOS page also demonstrate how official information can be used across government entities in a way that affects public health. That other websites are displaying this information shows how the content of the EPA website is far-reaching, well beyond the readership of the website itself.

A substantial amount of research on PFOA and PFOS chemicals has been published recently. For example, in February 2020, a paper was published on the immunotoxicity of dermal exposure to PFOA. This research concluded that dermal exposure to PFOA is immunotoxic and very well may have adverse health effects. As new studies like this one are conducted, information concerning this environmental and public health topic will expand. 

The emergence of new, critical research presents opportunities for considering and updating information on federal agency websites, but also raises the question of how these changes should happen. While a number of pollutants have congressionally-mandated scientific research review cycles, the vast majority of toxicants and pollutants do not. Given the demonstrable importance of information on EPA’s website, we recommend instituting more rapid scientific review processes for all chemicals described on the website, and updating content as appropriate, on at least an annual basis. We further recommend citing sources for the information provided. 

Wayback Machine links to webpages discussed in this blog: