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EPA finds 26 million people in US have toxic 'forever chemicals' in their drinking water

  • EPA finds 26 million people in US have toxic 'forever chemicals' in their drinking water
  • Water utility data submitted to the agency shows hundreds of new detections of “forever chemicals” in water.
  • The Biden administration must this year urgently finalize its national drinking water standards for tackling PFAS.

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The Environmental Protection Agency revealed that 26 million people in hundreds of communities have the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in their drinking water. 

The EPA’s Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR5, requires water utilities across the nation to test drinking water for 29 different PFAS compounds.

The initial round of data that the agency released confirms the presence of PFAS at 431 water systems at levels above minimum reporting limits. This is consistent with a 2020 study published by scientists at the Environmental Working Group that estimated more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water. 

“For decades, millions of Americans have unknowingly consumed water tainted with PFAS,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG. 

“The new testing data shows that escaping PFAS is nearly impossible. The EPA has done its job, and the Biden White House must finalize drinking water standards this year,” Faber added.

EWG’s interactive map now shows public and private water systems known to be contaminated with toxic PFAS at more than 2,800 locations in 50 states, the District of Columbia and two territories. The true scale of PFAS contamination is expected to be much greater.

The new UCMR5 data will soon be added to the PFAS Map.

The Environmental Protection Agency revealed that 26 million people in hundreds of communities have the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in their drinking water

More UCMR5 testing for PFAS will take place between 2023 and 2025, with new data expected quarterly. EPA collects data through the UCMR for contaminants suspected to be in drinking water and for which Safe Drinking Water Act, or SDWA, health-based standards do not exist.

Laboratory tests published by EWG in July anticipated the worrisome new results from the EPA this week. EWG tests found the presence of a variety of PFAS in the drinking water of numerous U.S. cities across 18 states, spanning from California to Connecticut.

The results underscored the widespread occurrence of PFAS in tap water, with elevated levels not only in major cities like Austin, Denver, and Los Angeles, but also in smaller communities such as Glencoe, Ill., and Monroe, N.J. Notably, the testing unveiled PFAS contamination in several areas where it had not been previously detected in tap water. And some water samples contained PFOA or PFOS -- the two most-studied and most notorious compounds – at concentrations surpassing the limits proposed by the EPA.

Need for EPA standards

The Biden administration must quickly finalize national SDWA drinking water standards for PFAS. In March, the EPA proposed bold new limits for six PFAS in public water systems. PFOA, once used to make Teflon, and PFOS, formerly used in Scotchgard – would each have a limit of 4 parts per trillion in drinking water.

A limit on the chemicals PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX would be based on a calculation of their combined presence, or “hazard index,” in drinking water. A hazard index is a tool the EPA uses to address the cumulative risks from groups of chemicals.

The limits, known as maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, are the highest allowable concentration of a contaminant in drinking water. 

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

“The agency needs to finalize its proposal and make the limits for PFAS in water enforceable,” she added.

The Biden EPA has pledged to finalize the drinking water standards by the end of 2023. Drinking water utilities will then likely have three to five years to comply, but 10 states already have limits in place.

“We need to stop PFAS at the source. We must move more quickly to end ongoing industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water,” said Benesh.

Widespread PFAS pollution

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.

“Communities and families 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,” Faber said.

“That means ending all non-essential uses of PFAS, such as those compounds used in the everyday products we bring into our homes,” he added.  

Finally, cleanup of legacy PFAS must be a priority. PFAS polluters profited from manufacturing these forever chemicals, and selling products made with them.

“Congress is considering new loopholes and exemptions for PFAS polluters that will let them off the hook for PFAS contamination they may have contributed. Congress must hold the polluting entities responsible,” Benesh said.

“Polluters must clean up their own mess,” she added.

Risks from 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 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 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.

“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. 

“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. 

“Almost everywhere we look, we find more PFAS contamination,” said Stoiber.    

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. Reverse osmosis and activated carbon filters can effectively reduce PFAS in drinking water. 

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