Many Potential Sources Of "Forever Chemicals" Could Be Contaminating US Drinking Water

They're everywhere - even in our drinking water. Image: Krakenimages.com/Shutterstock

Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) – also known as “forever chemicals” for their near-indestructible nature – are everywhere. They’re in things we use every day: our non-stick frying pans, our stain-resistant carpets, even our dental floss.

They’re also in things like our breastmilk and blood – even the blood of newborn babies. They’re in the air we breathe – and according to a new study from scientists at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an environmentalist activism group that specializes in research on toxic chemicals and pollutants, they’re also in the water we drink.

“There are tens of thousands of potential point sources of PFAS contamination across the United States that could pollute surface water or drinking water,” explains the study, published this week in the journal American Water Works Association Water Science. “Water testing downstream from manufacturing facilities and from PFAS users identified a significant number of previously unknown PFAS, confirming the need for broad testing of industrial facilities and broad testing across this entire class of synthetic compounds.”

Using public data from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), the researchers analyzed nearly 42,000 potential sources of PFAS contamination in drinking water across the US – mostly solid waste landfills, wastewater treatment plants, electroplaters and metal finishers, and petroleum refineries. More than 30 percent of the sites studied had active National Pollution Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits, meaning they were legally allowed to discharge pollutants into future communal drinking water (albeit under certain limitations.)

“Our investigation identifies a huge number of potential sources of contamination,” said David Andrews, lead author of the study and a senior scientist at EWG. “It also provides a framework for deciding where and what to test so we can end releases into the environment.”

“It is critical that the EPA start regulating PFAS – now,” he added. “Every community in the US is likely affected.”

Some studies have associated PFAS in water – even very low doses – with increased risks of cancer, increased cholesterol, and reproductive and developmental issues, but the full scope of how these chemicals impact health is still unknown. Nevertheless, not everybody in the scientific community agrees with the EWG's conclusions, with some considering them alarmist – noting that the group's choice to consider PFAS as a class, rather than on an individual basis, is not an established standard.

We already knew that drinking water contained PFAS, but it turns out this may have been worse than we realized. In samples of tap water taken from across Northern Virginia, the researchers discovered PFAS contamination at significantly higher levels than those previously reported for parts of Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, case studies on data from Michigan and California, who both recently commissioned state-level PFAS contamination investigations, showed that the “forever chemicals” can enter water systems through a wide range of routes.

“The results from states like Michigan show there is a wide variety of sources of PFAS in surface water … Many landfills and industrial sites release PFAS at detectable concentrations that may exceed state limits or health guidelines for PFAS in water,” cautioned Andrews.

“It is urgent that ongoing releases of PFAS be identified. We need to stop non-essential uses of PFAS and use filters to reduce these compounds from [our] water.”

Combatting the widespread contamination from PFAS will be a huge challenge, the researchers say – but not an impossible one. Taking the lead from Michigan, where state-mandated testing and regulations have reduced industrial PFAS discharges significantly, the report recommends sweeping regulatory changes at the federal level and nationwide water testing.

While the EPA already has what it labels a “proactive” action plan on PFAS contamination, some say it’s not enough. By some reckonings, the drinking water of upwards of 6 million Americans is contaminated with PFAS levels that exceed EPA recommended limits. Speaking earlier this year to Scientific American, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine Jamie DeWitt, who was not involved in the study, said she “wasn’t at all surprised” at the extent of contamination found in a similar investigation.

“They exist in many different water systems and ... many, many people are getting exposed through their drinking water,” she said.

Federal action on PFAS regulation is difficult, but the EWG hopes this report may push the Biden administration into taking stronger action.

“We need to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from these industrial discharges, which affects more and more Americans every day. That's the first step,” said Scott Faber, EWG's senior vice president for government affairs. “The second step is for the EPA to set a national PFAS drinking water standard. And the third is to clean up legacy pollution.”

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