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About 70 million people exposed to toxic PFAS 'forever chemicals' in US drinking water

  • About 70 million people exposed to toxic PFAS 'forever chemicals' in US drinking water

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On February 1, the Environmental Protection Agency posted data confirming 70 million people have drinking water that has tested positive for the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS. That number is based on the latest test results from only one-third of public water supplies.

EPA’s new data release adds urgency to the Biden administration’s overdue effort to establish first-time drinking water standards for PFAS. President Joe Biden promised in 2020 to set a PFAS drinking water standard as part of his campaign’s plan to secure environmental justice.

The latest PFAS results reflect tests conducted in 2023 at 3,700 water systems as part of the EPA’s Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR5. The rule requires water utilities across the nation to test drinking water for 29 PFAS compounds. More systems will be tested this year and in 2025.

Representing the third round of data from 2023, the new results showed PFAS were present in 33 percent of systems tested. 

The sheer scope of the PFAS contamination problem underscores why the Biden administration must quickly finalize national drinking water standards for PFAS under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or SDWA. The EPA proposed such limits in March 2023.

“There are many other steps we must take to reduce PFAS pollution, including ending non-essential uses of PFAS, ending industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water, cleaning up legacy PFAS pollution, and properly disposing of PFAS waste,” said Scott Faber, Environmental Working Group senior vice president for government affairs.

“But the single most important step we must take is to finalize a drinking water standard for all 50 states,” he said.

Regulating PFAS in water

The proposed PFAS drinking water standard will set science-based limits for six PFAS in drinking water. These chemicals have been studied extensively and are linked to serious health harms, including cancer and damage to the reproductive and immune systems. 

Some states have set their own drinking water standards for PFAS, but people in 40 states are depending on Biden to set a national drinking water standard that will apply across the U.S. 

The latest test results released by the EPA tell only part of the story – the full scale of PFAS contamination is likely much more widespread.

PFAS contamination crisis

A 2020 study published by scientists at the EWG estimated more than 200 million Americans are served by water systems with PFOA or PFOS – two of the most notorious PFAS – in their drinking water at a concentration of 1 part per trillion, or ppt, or higher. The EPA tests report only PFAS detections at 4 ppt or higher for these chemicals.

EWG’s interactive PFAS contamination map, which we update frequently, shows public and private water systems known to be contaminated with toxic PFAS at thousands of locations. As of February 5, the map shows PFAS are known to contaminate 5,021 locations in 50 states, the District of Columbia and four territories. 

The EPA plans to release additional data on PFAS in drinking water as more systems conduct tests between now and 2025. The agency collects data through the UCMR for contaminants suspected to be in drinking water and for which SDWA health-based standards do not exist. 

Risks of PFAS exposure

PFAS are known as forever chemicals because once released into the environment they do not break down and they can build up in the body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has detected PFAS in the blood of 99 percent of Americans, including newborn babies. 

Very low doses of PFAS have been linked to suppression of the immune system. Studies show exposure to very low levels of PFAS can also increase the risk of cancer, harm fetal development and reduce vaccine effectiveness. 

“Every week new research highlights the detrimental effects of PFAS on human health and the environment and underscores the need for immediate action to protect drinking water,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. 

If you know or suspect PFAS are in your tap water, the best way to protect yourself is with a filtration system at home. EWG researchers tested the performance of 10 popular water filters and measured how well each reduced PFAS detected in home tap water. 

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