A new study published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters identifies at least 57,000 sites potentially contaminated with the toxic “forever chemicals” known as PFAS.
The 57,412 sites with potential contamination include places where PFAS-laden firefighting foam, known as aqueous film-forming foam, or AFFF, was likely released; certain industrial facilities; sites related to PFAS-containing waste; military sites and airports. The study was led by a team at Boston’s Northeastern University and joined by several other researchers.
Last year, the Environmental Working Group published a paper in the American Water Works Association’s journal Water Science identifying 41,862 potential dischargers of PFAS, including facilities in industries known to use PFAS, waste facilities and airports.
In addition to the 41,862 active or operational locations, EWG’s paper also noted the presence of an additional 21,350 inactive locations that could also be potential sources of PFAS contamination. After publication of EWG’s analysis, the Environmental Protection Agency published a list of more than 130,000 potential PFAS sites.
EWG also maintains a map of suspected industrial dischargers of forever chemicals across the U.S.
“The true scale of PFAS contamination in the United States is likely dramatically underreported,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “As PFAS are found to be harmful at lower and lower levels, it is critically important to identify sources of potential contamination and take steps to protect downstream communities who may be unwittingly exposed.”
EWG also has confirmed PFAS is present at 2,858 sites, but a lack of widespread testing, particularly of surface waters, means this is likely a significant undercount
In June, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new lifetime health advisories, or LHAs, for the PFAS chemicals PFOA, PFOS, PFBS and Gen-X. LHAs provide information on contaminants in drinking water that can harm people throughout their lives.
EWG also has confirmed PFAS is present at 2,858 sites, but a lack of widespread testing, particularly of surface waters, means this is likely a significant undercount.
PFAS are known as forever chemicals because once released into the environment, they do not break down and can build up in our blood and organs. Exposure to PFAS increases the risk of cancer, harms the development of the fetus and reduces the effectiveness of vaccines. Biomonitoring studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the blood of nearly all Americans is contaminated with PFAS.
Identifying potential dischargers of PFAS is important because it helps regulators better target future testing and alerts nearby communities to potential risks. Although PFAS contamination is ubiquitous, there are few federal limits on industrial discharges of PFAS.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed designating the two most notorious types of PFAS – PFOA and PFOS – as hazardous substances. The designation means a facility must immediately report discharges of a pound or more of the chemicals within 24 hours. This will give the EPA more information about releases as they happen and may help the agency identify other facilities that are underreporting their discharges.
“For decades, industrial dischargers of PFAS have been allowed to pollute with impunity,” said Melanie Benesh, EWG vice president of government affairs. “Federal regulations limiting discharges into the air and water are urgently needed to turn off the tap at the source. The EPA should move swiftly to set regulations for the industries most likely to be dumping PFAS into the environment. State regulators should also act quickly to incorporate limits on the amount of PFAS that can be released into existing permits.”