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Detections of PFAS in water coast to coast strengthen call for stringent EPA regulation

  • Detections of PFAS in water coast to coast strengthen call for stringent EPA regulation

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New laboratory tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group have found the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas.

This new round of test results – based on samples of water from the homes of residents in 18 states, from California to Connecticut – shows the widespread presence of PFAS in our tap water. 

“For decades, Americans have unknowingly consumed water tainted with PFAS,” said Sydney Evans, a senior science analyst at EWG. “PFAS have been used and discharged all across the country for years.”

“The widespread presence of PFAS pollution is a pervasive problem that has persisted for years. These tests show that escaping PFAS pollution is nearly impossible,” she added.

In the most recent round of tests, elevated levels of PFAS were discovered not only in prominent urban centers such as Austin, Denver, and Los Angeles but also in smaller communities like Glencoe, Ill., and Monroe, N.J. These findings revealed the presence of PFAS in several communities where PFAS pollution had not been previously documented in tap water. 

Although only minimal traces of PFAS were detected in some locations, others had concentrations that raise concerns regarding human health.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed regulating some PFAS at levels found in the tests. In March, the agency unveiled unprecedented new limit for six PFAS – PFOA, PFOS, GenX, PFBS, PFNA and PFHxS. 

The limits, known as maximum contaminant levels or MCLs, are the highest allowable concentration of a contaminant in drinking water. The MCLs announced are 4 parts per trillion, or ppt, for PFOA and 4 ppt for PFOS, currently the limit of detection for both chemicals. 

For the other four PFAS chemicals, the EPA is proposing a “hazard index,” which is a tool the agency uses to address cumulative risks from mixtures of chemicals. 

Our recent water testing project had samples from several locations where PFOA or PFOS were detected at levels above the EPA’s proposed limit.

“The EPA’s proposed limits for PFAS in drinking water also serve as a stark reminder of just how toxic these chemicals are to human health at very low levels,” said Melanie Benesh, EWG’s vice president of government affairs.

New laboratory tests commissioned by the Environmental Working Group have found the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities

“Communities and families all across the nation are bearing the burden of chemical companies’ callous disregard for human health and the government’s inaction. This PFAS crisis calls for immediate action to ensure all Americans have safe and clean drinking water,” Benesh said.

The new test results coincide with a U.S. Geological Survey study that found almost half the nation’s tap water has been contaminated by one or more of the 32 individual PFAS for which the agency tested. The pervasiveness of these hazardous substances in our drinking water highlights the urgent need for regulation. 

Moreover, the findings from EWG represent only a fraction of what is anticipated when the EPA releases first-time data from thousands of public water systems across the U.S. The EPA data are expected to reveal that the full scale of the PFAS crisis is much worse than the EPA has previously reported.

As part of the EPA’s Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, water utilities across the nation are testing drinking water for 29 different PFAS compounds. These tests will be conducted between 2023 and 2025, and release of a portion of the collected results is anticipated this summer.

The initial round of data is expected to confirm the presence of PFAS in thousands of new locations across the U.S. and will likely support the 2020 estimate published by EWG scientists that over 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water. 

PFAS are known as forever chemicals because they do not break down in the environment, and they build up in our blood and organs. 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 in drinking water have been linked to suppression of the immune system, including reduced vaccine efficacy, and an increased risk of certain cancers. PFAS are linked with increased cholesterol, reproductive and developmental problems such as reduced birth weight and impacts on fertility, and other health harms.

“During these decades of lax regulatory oversight, scientific research has uncovered numerous harmful effects of PFAS on our bodies and well-being,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “These recent tests show how prevalent PFAS are in tap water, underscoring the fact that almost everywhere we look, we find more contamination.”    

“Decades of unchecked use and releases of PFAS have devastated the planet by polluting people, drinking water, and even food, including fish and wildlife, across the globe,” she added.

PFAS have been found in the drinking water and groundwater of more than 2,800 communities. But the true scale of contamination is likely much greater. 

EWG estimates there could be nearly 30,000 industrial polluters releasing PFAS into the environment, including into sources of drinking water. Restricting industrial discharges will reduce the amount of PFAS drinking water utilities must treat.

“Polluters must clean up their own mess and stop PFAS contamination at the source,” said Benesh. “Congress is considering new loopholes and exemptions for PFAS polluters that will let them off the hook for PFAS contamination they may have contributed. It’s time for Congress to hold the polluting entities responsible, and for the EPA to regulate industrial discharges of PFAS into the air and water.”

Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA has until September 3, 2024, to finalize the new drinking water standards. Drinking water utilities will then likely have three to five years to comply.

Until then, EWG found four water filters that reduce the detected PFAS in sampled drinking water by nearly 100 percent. 

“We know drinking water is one of the most common sources of PFAS exposure,” said Evans. “It’s almost impossible to avoid PFAS, but these filters can reduce levels from the water coming from home taps.

“We tested their performance on a real home tap, with water contaminated by PFAS, because we know people are looking for options other than reverse osmosis systems that will reduce the PFAS in their tap water,” she said.

Here is more advice: 

  • Search EWG’s tap water database – type in your ZIP code to learn about the concerning chemicals, including PFAS, that are in your tap water.
  • Or check out the interactive PFAS map to see whether your drinking water contains forever chemicals and where in the U.S. they have been detected.
  • If you have a private water well and suspect PFAS contamination, consult your state health department about having your well tested.
  • If you buy a home water filter, remember to routinely replace the filter. The filtration system will only be effective if used as instructed.
  • The best way to filter PFAS from your water is an in-home reverse osmosis filter under your sink or at your tap, but the cost of this kind of system puts them out of reach for some. Our study shows many countertop pitchers can also effectively reduce PFAS concentrations. 

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