Avoiding Murky Waters: Tips for Communicating About PFAS
PFAS chemicals (or Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are being detected in water sources across the nation. Recent studies show that the chemicals once found in everyday items including nonstick cookware and many other consumer products may affect growth and development, reproduction, thyroid function and the immune system–causing health concerns and public alarm.
As states such as California establish their own PFAS regulations in the current absence of federal limits, local agencies must ensure they are aware of emerging state requirements and take appropriate action while at the same time communicating clearly and proactively with stakeholders.
Below are some helpful tips for public agencies communicating about PFAS:
Avoid Acronym Confusion
“PFAS,” “PFOS” and “PFOA” are all acronyms related to this issue, creating the potential for a confusing acronym soup. Ensure you use “PFAS” when you are referring to “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances,” the overall family of these chemicals. “PFOS” and “PFOA” refer to two types of PFAS; “PFOS” stands for “Perfluoroctane Sulfonate” and “PFOA” stands for “Pefluorooctanoic Acid.”
Use Everyday Examples to Help Visualize Measurements
“Parts per trillion” doesn’t mean much to the average citizen. Instead of using industry
jargon, explain measurements in terms your readers or listeners will be able to visualize. While readers may not conceptualize “one part per trillion,” they will be able to easily grasp that amount when described as “four grains of sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool.”
Track the Communication Landscape
PFAS is a rapidly evolving topic. Regulations are being hotly debated at various levels of government, and the issue is being highlighted in media ranging from local news outlets to the star-studded movie “Dark Waters.” Daily monitoring of PFAS-related news is imperative in order to anticipate and address stakeholder questions and concerns.
Science is Complicated
Health issues that integrate fundamental health with chemistry and environmental matters are complex. Complexity creates confusion and often results in easily misinterpreted data or outright misinformation campaigns by political forces looking to stoke fear. Find authoritative sources who are prepared to offer simplified answers and ensure you have experts on speed dial who can address community questions.
Communicating about PFAS requires a firm grasp on the issue as well as the ability to translate technical information your stakeholders will easily understand. Tripepi Smith is currently working with clients spanning water districts, cities and other local agencies to generate PFAS-related FAQs, keep websites up-to-date, develop fact sheets and press releases, and more. Contact us today to see how we can help.