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Toxic 'forever chemicals' contaminate more than half of wells tested in Delaware

  • Toxic 'forever chemicals' contaminate more than half of wells tested in Delaware

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More than half of the water wells that were tested in Delaware have detectable levels of the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, and some have PFAS levels far exceeding federal health guidelines for the chemicals, according to new U.S. Geological Survey sampling.

A couple of the wells sampled in the study had levels of PFOA and PFOS – two of the most notorious and prevalent PFAS – that were higher than 70 parts per trillion, or ppt, the level the EPA set in 2016 above which health harms can occur. This month, the EPA released studies suggesting the true safe level should be much lower, at just 1 ppt.

The two wells with levels above 70 ppt were near New Castle and Selbyville. The highest detection for any PFAS tested for was 130 ppt. Exposure to PFAS can cause elevated risks of cancer, suppression of the immune system, and other serious problems.

“Although the findings are just for one state, we know that PFAS contamination is reaching crisis levels across the country,” said Olga Naidenko, EWG’s vice president for science investigations.

“As more sampling is done of water supplies in the U.S., it becomes clearer that the contamination is widespread, and often at levels scientists consider unsafe for public health,” she said.

Other key findings in the USGS survey of Delaware water wells include: 

  • More than half of sampled wells had detectable concentrations of PFAS.
  • PFOA was the type of PFAS most frequently detected in wells.
  • PFOS, PFHxS and PFBS were types of PFAS also frequently detected.

Likely culprits for the contamination include industrial sources and military bases. EWG has confirmed the presence of PFAS at two military installations in Delaware. EWG has also identified 82 companies that could be discharging PFAS into the air and water. 

And PFAS has been a problem plaguing Delaware communities for many years. In 2018, PFAS contamination was detected in the drinking water of the Delaware town of Blades, where PFAS in the drinking water was measured at over 187 ppt, well above the EPA’s advisory level.

The source of contamination in Blades is suspected to be local industrial facilities’ unregulated PFAS releases. Residents in Blades had to be provided with bottled water, because their tap water was unsafe to drink. A filtration system has been installed for the municipal drinking water supply, but PFOA and PFOS continue to be identified in private residential wells.

The EPA has also added the Blades site to its Superfund list for cleanup.

Senate environment panel Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) has led efforts to address PFAS in the upper chamber. He recently announced plans to develop companion legislation to the PFAS Action Act, which has passed the House of Representatives. It would require the EPA to take a host of regulatory actions to reduce and clean up PFAS contamination.

Last month, the EPA issued a PFAS road map that pledged to set limits on PFOA and PFOS in drinking water and designate them as “hazardous substances” under the nation’s cleanup laws. But the road map did not set deadlines to restrict industrial PFAS discharges.

In November, President Joe Biden signed a landmark infrastructure law that provides $10 billion to remove PFAS from drinking water. But it remains unclear how much of that funding will flow to homeowners with contaminated wells, such as those in Delaware.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed the National Defense Authorization Act, which provides $517 million to clean up PFAS at military bases, but more help is vital.

“The discovery of PFAS in Delaware well water lends even more urgency to efforts to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution,” said Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs. “Congress needs to quickly give EPA the deadlines, direction and resources to tackle PFAS.”

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