New data released by the Environmental Protection Agency show 44 million people have toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS in their drinking water after collecting test results from fewer than one-third of the nation’s drinking water supplies.
The findings come from water tests conducted as part of the EPA’s Fifth Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR5, which requires water utilities across the nation to test drinking water for 29 different PFAS compounds. Fewer than one-third of public water systems are testing their water in 2023. Additional tests will take place over the next two years.
This second round of 2023 data released found PFAS in an additional 423 drinking water systems serving more than 18 million people. Combined with the data released in the first round of testing, UCMR5 data indicate 854 systems supply drinking water contaminated with PFAS to over 44 million people.
The data released by the EPA only tells part of the story – the full scale of PFAS contamination is likely much more widespread. A 2020 study published by scientists at the Environmental Working Group estimated more than 200 million Americans are served by water systems with PFOA or PFOS in their drinking water at a concentration of 1 part per trillion, or ppt, or higher. The EPA testing reports PFAS detections at 4 ppt for these chemicals.
“New research published each week highlights the detrimental effects of PFAS on human health and the environment, and underscores the need for immediate action to combat contamination,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG.
“Unchecked use and releases of PFAS have had devastating consequences on a global scale, affecting people, drinking water, food, fish and wildlife,” she added.
“Almost everywhere we look, we find more PFAS contamination,” said Stoiber.
EWG’s interactive PFAS contamination map currently shows public and private water systems known to be contaminated with toxic PFAS at thousands of locations in 50 states, the District of Columbia and two territories. The true scale of PFAS contamination is expected to be much greater, and EWG will be updating the map with more sites soon.
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 Safe Drinking Water Act, or SDWA, health-based standards do not exist.
Need for EPA standards
The sheer scope of the PFAS contamination problem underscores why the Biden administration must quickly finalize national SDWA drinking water standards for the forever chemicals.
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 ppt in drinking water.
EPA also proposed limits on the chemicals PFNA, PFHxS, PFBS and GenX based on a calculation of their combined presence in drinking water. The limits, known as maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, are the highest allowable concentration of a contaminant in drinking water.
“The EPA’s proposed limits for PFAS serve as a stark reminder of just how toxic these chemicals are to human health at very low levels,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at EWG. “This latest testing data shows that we need immediate action to protect people from PFAS.
"The PFAS crisis looms over every single one of us. We need to stop PFAS at the source, and move quickly to end ongoing industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water,” he said. “And the EPA must finalize its drinking water standards this year.”
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.
Widespread PFAS pollution
EWG estimates there could be nearly 30,000 industrial polluters releasing PFAS into the environment, including into sources of drinking water. Restrictions on industrial discharges will lower the amount of PFAS drinking water utilities must treat.
And 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 polluters responsible,” Faber said.
“Polluters must clean up their own mess,” he 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 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.
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.