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Toxic 'forever chemicals' widespread in California drinking water sources

  • Toxic 'forever chemicals' widespread in California drinking water sources

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Drinking water sources for 74 community water systems serving 7.5 million Californians are contaminated with the highly toxic fluorinated chemicals called PFAS, according to an Environmental Working Group review of the latest state data.

Very low doses of PFAS chemicals in drinking water have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, reproductive and immune system harm, liver or thyroid disease and other health problems. All of the detections in California water systems’ sources exceeded 1 part per trillion, or ppt, the safe level recommended by the best independent studies and endorsed by EWG.

More than 40 percent of systems had at least one sample with over 70 ppt of total PFAS, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s inadequate lifetime health advisory level for the two most notorious fluorinated chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. In addition to those two compounds, some California water systems detected up to six other PFAS chemicals.

Among the communities served by systems with high maximum detections of PFAS were Camp Pendleton, Corona, Oroville and Rosemont and eastern Sacramento suburbs. See the full list of detections here.

“The PFAS crisis has raised alarms nationwide, but it’s been under the radar in California,” said EWG President Ken Cook, a Bay Area resident. “This new data shows that PFAS pollution in California is much more widespread than we knew, with almost one in five Californians served by a utility with at least some of its drinking water supply contaminated with PFAS.”

EWG’s list shows not the current level of contamination in tap water, but the extent of contamination in drinking water sources identified since 2013. Maximum detection levels reported to the California State Water Board and the EPA are a snapshot of the water source when it was tested, not necessarily what is coming out of taps now. Water systems may have taken contaminated wells offline, blended water from contaminated wells with cleaner sources, or installed water treatment to reduce PFAS levels.

“Treatment of high PFAS levels in drinking water sources doesn’t make the problem go away,” said EWG Senior Scientist Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D. “Water systems’ costs of dealing with the problem are often passed on to customers, and if a source has to be shut down, it’s a challenge to replace it, at a time when clean water supplies in the state are at a high premium. The PFAS contamination crisis affects everyone.”

PFAS contamination has been found in more than 800 communities, military bases, airports and industrial sites nationwide. EWG’s analysis of unreleased EPA data estimates that more than 100 million Americans may have PFAS in their drinking water.

PFAS are “forever chemicals” that never break down once released into the environment, and they build up in our blood and organs. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, virtually all Americans have PFAS in their blood.

The EPA has not set a national legal limit for PFAS in drinking water supplies, only the non-enforceable and inadequate lifetime health advisory. Neither has California, despite calls to do so from EWG and more than two dozen other environmental and public health organizations. The state water board has asked the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment to develop public health goals for PFOA and PFOS.

Major sources of contamination are PFAS-based firefighting foams, industrial discharges into air and water, and PFAS in food packaging and other consumer products. Once released to the environment, PFAS enter our bodies through food, drinking water and other routes.

Military and civilian firefighters continue to use PFAS firefighting foams that seep into drinking water supplies, contaminating hundreds of military installations. Manufacturers continue to discharge PFAS into the air and water – nearly 500 facilities nationwide are suspected of releases of PFAS chemicals.

PFAS manufacturers are not required to clean up past contamination, even though companies like 3M and DuPont knowingly released PFAS chemicals for decades. Internal company documents show that the companies knew the risks PFAS posed to their workers and neighboring communities but didn’t tell regulators.

Congress may soon adopt PFAS reforms included in the House and Senate versions of a must-pass defense spending bill, the National Defense Authorization Act. Provisions in the bill would quickly end military uses of PFAS in firefighting foam and food packaging, reduce industrial discharges into drinking water supplies, remediate sites with the worst contamination and expand PFAS monitoring and reporting.

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