According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), contamination of US drinking water with toxic ‘forever chemicals’ is far worse than previously thought.
The EWG commissioned report states that perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been found in the drinking water of dozens of major US cities. Furthermore, previous analysis of unpublished data from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that around 110 million Americans could be contaminated. Yet, based on the latest report it is feared that estimate could have been far too low.
PFAS and the Effects
Since 2001 the EPA has been aware of the issue and threat PFAS pose to human health in a contaminated drinking water supply. While guidelines were released suggesting a 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt) for the more common PFOA and PFOS PFA compounds, there has been little action taken in terms of imposing a legal limit on the chemicals. The EWG endorse setting a legally binding ‘safe limit’ of 1 ppt PFAS in drinking water, based on their independent laboratory reports.
The compound PFOA was a chemical used by DuPont for manufacturing Teflon. The compound gained notoriety after featuring in a 2016 New York Times article and then again in the movie Dark Water which was based on the NYT piece. Yet, even with DuPont ceasing to use the compound in manufacturing, the EWG believes the problem of PFAS in the water supply across the nation is growing.
Since 2015, another seven big companies have phased out the using the chemicals in production and manufacturing processes. Yet, the EWG believes unless more action is taken by government the consequences of the human health risks could be even more costly.
PFAS have been linked to many harmful health effects such as liver damage, cancers, immune system dysfunction and hormonal defects. PFAS get their name, ‘forever chemicals’ because once released they do not break down in the environment and can build up in the blood stream and major organs.
Having detected PFOA in 30 of the 44 samples and PFOS in 34 the EWG is calling for a nationwide investigation into filtration efforts by utility companies.
Commitment to Action
Previous EPA and EWG surveys had not detected the magnitude of PFA presence in drinking water. The latest study tested for 30 PFA compounds rather than just the two most common, as previously mentioned. Some of these other PFA compounds are found in everyday items including stain-resistant clothing, cosmetics and food packaging.
It was discovered that states including Michigan, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New York, and also D.C., have water systems contaminated with toxic PFA chemicals. Of the samples tested, those with detectable levels of PFAS contained, on average, seven different compounds. One sample was found to contain 13 different PFAS at different concentrations.
The EPA has since stated it is working to introduce enforceable limits on PFOA and PFOS but could not commit to a timeline. Additionally, the agency has stated PFAS will continue to be an EPA priority in 2020 and it has developed new ways to test for the chemicals in the water supply in a commitment to action.
The EWG has stated their independent report was conducted to “highlight the ubiquity of PFAS and the vulnerability of the nation’s drinking water supply to PFAS contamination.” While the tests carried out were comprehensive and the group believes the tests to be accurate they did state, “EWG’s tests represent a single sample from each water system and may not represent what is coming out of a tap today.”
The environmental group has also set up a petition to lobby congress into cleaning up PFAS contamination and prosecute those responsible.