The Environmental Working Group updated its interactive PFAS map of sites contaminated with the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS to show 3,186 locations in 50 states, the District of Columbia and two territories. There are 328 newly confirmed locations with detections of PFAS.
The true scale of contamination is likely much greater since water utility PFAS testing data released by the Environmental Protection Agency last week accounts for just 20 percent of U.S. water systems nationwide that will test for 29 different PFAS compounds as part of the EPA’s Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rul, or UCMR 5.
On August 17, the EPA released the first results of PFAS tests from 2,000 water utilities across the nation. Tests are planned under the UCMR 5 for a total of 10,000 water systems by the end of 2025. The initial round of data confirms the presence of one or more PFAS compounds at 431 locations serving 26.3 million people. The tests also support EWG scientists’ estimate from 2020 that more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water.
Some of the prominent newly identified sites include:
- Fresno, Calif. (population: 522,352) – nine PFAS at 194.3 parts per trillion, or ppt.
- New Castle, Del. (population: 6,000) – two PFAS at 270 ppt.
- Robeson County, N.C. (population: 64,295) – nine PFAS at 149.7 ppt.
- Suffolk County, N.Y. (population: 1,100,000) – four PFAS at 92.8 ppt.
The average number of individual PFAS detected in water is 3.1 forever chemicals per water system. Among the locations with the highest PFAS detections, 28 water systems reported PFAS at levels above 70 ppt, the EPA’s previous non-enforceable health guideline.
Five systems had a detection of PFAS at 100 ppt or higher, and the Yeshiva Farm Settlement, in New York, reported an astonishing 10 PFAS at 427.6 ppt.
“For decades, millions of Americans have unknowingly consumed water tainted with PFAS,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at EWG. “The widespread presence of PFAS contamination is a huge problem that has persisted for years. This new testing shows that escaping PFAS is nearly impossible.”
The most common PFAS detected are:
- PFPeA, detected in 207 systems.
- PFBA, detected in 198 systems.
- PFHxA, detected in 198 systems.
- PFBS, detected in 192 systems.
- PFOS, detected in 170 systems.
- PFOA, detected in 156 systems.
- PFHxS, detected in 123 systems.
Water utility tests for PFAS, as required by the agency’s UCMR 5, are being conducted between 2023 and 2025, with new data expected quarterly.
The new findings underscore the imperative for the Biden administration to quickly finalize national drinking water standards for tackling PFAS in drinking water.
In March, the EPA proposed bold new limits for six PFAS in public water systems. The two best studied and most notorious compounds – PFOA, once used in Teflon, and PFOS, formerly used in Scotchgard – would each have a limit of 4 ppt in drinking water. The chemicals PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX would be subject to a hazard index calculation to determine whether the levels of these PFAS pose a potential health risk.
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 said.
The Biden EPA has pledged to finalize the PFAS 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 PFAS standards in place.
“We need to stop PFAS at the source,” said Benesh. “We must move faster to end ongoing industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water.”
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.
“Congress is considering new loopholes and exemptions for PFAS polluters that will let them off the hook for PFAS contamination they may have contributed to. Congress must hold the polluting entities responsible,” Benesh added. “Polluters must clean up their own mess.”
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 also can increase the risk of cancer, harm fetal development and reduce vaccine effectiveness.
“During 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.
“All these years 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 by using 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.
How to learn whether PFAS are in your drinking water:
- Search EWG’s Tap Water Database – type in your ZIP code to learn about the chemicals of concern, including PFAS, that are in your tap water.
- Or check EWG’s interactive PFAS map to see whether your drinking water contains forever chemicals and other locations in the U.S. where they have been detected.
- 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 system puts them out of reach for some.
- If you buy a home water filter, remember to routinely replace the filter. The filtration system will only be effective if used as instructed.
- If you have a private water well and suspect PFAS contamination, consult your state health department about having your well tested.