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EPA set to regulate PFAS chemicals, which have already been found in McKeesport, Coraopolis

EPA Forever Chemical
Matt Rourke
/
AP
In this Aug. 1, 2018 photo, a water tower stands above a residential neighborhood in Horsham, Pa. In Horsham and surrounding towns in eastern Pennsylvania, and at other sites around the United States, the foams once used routinely in firefighting training at military bases contained per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. EPA testing between 2013 and 2015 found significant amounts of PFAS in public water supplies in 33 U.S. states.

On today’s episode of The Confluence: The state has begun to regulate harmful PFAS chemicals, but plans for federal regulation could alter the trajectory; a Duquesne professor weighs in on how K-12 schools can support students’ mental health at a time when pediatric and child psychiatric groups are declaring a state of emergency; and we visit an illegal dumpsite in the east hills with a crew of “DumpBusters” ready to clean it up.

EPA to develop stricter regulations for PFAS chemicals
(0:00 - 8:20)

On Monday, the EPA released a strategic roadmap to address PFAS chemicals, short for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances. They’re also called “forever chemicals.”

These human-made chemicals don’t break down naturally, can end up in water supplies, and cause health issues like testicular and kidney cancers, decreased birth weights, and more. A study by the state Department of Environmental Protection found PFAS chemicals in southwestern Pennsylvania.

“In the initial round of sampling in 2019 they found contamination in Coraopolis near the Pittsburgh airport,” says Kristina Marusic, a reporter with the Environmental Health News.

“There was recently a problem in McKeesport where firefighting foam [which can contain PFAS] was accidentally shot back into a fire hydrant, … and they had to tell people not to drink or use the water there,” says Marusic.

Pennsylvania’s Environmental Quality Board voted in June to move forward with setting a maximum contaminant level for these substances, which comes after a 2017 promise to regulate PFAS chemicals from the state’s EPA, but the level has not been determined. It’s likely another two years away.

The federal EPA currently says a combined PFAS level above 70 parts per trillion is widespread contamination, however, many health officials have said that number is too high.

“That number is not legally enforceable right now, it’s just a recommended limit,” says Marusic. “The new plan that the EPA published on Monday includes an updated and accelerated timeline for various steps to regulate and remediate and conduct research on PFAS.”

Local professor sees a ‘spike’ in need for children’s mental health services 
(8:23 - 16:50)

This week a coalition of health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association, declared a national state of emergency in child and adolescent mental health.

That same day the Biden administration announced updated guidance and resources to help schools support childhood and adolescent mental health. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona cited the ongoing impact of the pandemic for the change.

“We have been seeing an increase in children's mental health needs for the last couple of years and subsequent to the pandemic, we’ve actually seen a spike,” says Tammy Hughes, a professor in Duquesne University’s School of Education: Counseling, Psychology and Special Education.

Hughes says children thrive in family and school systems, alongside peers, and the lack of that system had a negative effect. Additionally, schools have social-emotional supports and services for children who may not otherwise have access to mental health care.

“There’s not enough workforce [school counselors and psychologists], and in fact, some of the legislation from the Biden administration is about workforce development,” says Hughes. “When we look at the national average, it’s usually eight years on average from when a kid is having symptoms to when they receive services.”

Hughes says sometimes parents are concerned about seeking help because they fear stigmatization, and some believe perhaps their child will recover without intervention.

“One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that kids are reporting more discussions about mental health needs and mental health services,” says Hughes.

“Kids are resilient, and the amazing thing about kids is they will bounce back. Having said that, I think we should not be rigid in our expectations.”

DumpBuster teams are cleaning illegal dumpsites around the city
(16:52 - 22:30)

People who live in Pittsburgh’s East Hills neighborhood still use the Singer Place Steps to get around, but it's one of dozens of illegal dumpsites identified by the nonprofit Allegheny CleanWays.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple tagged along one Saturday with its DumpBusters crew of volunteers as they tackled mounds of trash on the hillside.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

Kevin Gavin is the host of WESA's news interview program "The Confluence." He is a native Pittsburgher and served as news director for 90.5 WDUQ for 34 years. Since the sale of the radio station by Duquesne University to Pittsburgh EPM, Inc. (now Pittsburgh Community Broadcasting Corp.), he served as Executive Producer of Special News Projects prior to being named as host of "The Confluence" five years ago. kgavin@wesa.fm
Marylee is the editor/producer of The Confluence, the daily public affairs show on WESA. She got her start in journalism at The Daily Reveille and KLSU while attending Louisiana State University. She took her passion for audio journalism to UC Berkeley's graduate program and worked in public radio at WPR in Madison, WI, and WOSU in Columbus, Ohio.
Laura Tsutsui is a producer for The Confluence, WESA's morning news show. Previously, she reported on the San Joaquin Valley with the NPR affiliate station in her hometown of Fresno, California. She can be reached at ltsutsui@wesa.fm.
Rebecca Reese is a production assistant for The Confluence.
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