At least 610 drinking water sources in 43 states contain possibly unsafe levels of potentially harmful chemicals linked to birth defects, cancers, infertility, and reduced immune responses in children, according to a collaborative analysis conducted by the Environmental Working Group and Northeastern University.
Altogether, more than 19 million Americans may be exposed to man-made chemicals dangerous to human health.
The interactive map uses data released last year by the Pentagon and, in combination with public water utility reports, evaluates drinking water sources around the nation to document toxic fluorinated compounds called per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, at known pollution sites across the US. These include public water systems, military bases, and airports.
Though PFAS are found in materials we use every day – from your favorite non-stick pan to stain-resistant fabrics – the chemicals are also found in fire-fighting foam commonly used at military bases, on ships, and at airports around the country. They are not a natural source in the environment, but PFAS are found in places where they are manufactured or used and can “travel long distances, move through the soil, seep into the groundwater, or be carried through the air,” notes the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
"This is a national crisis and it requires a national response," said Bill Walker, vice president of the Environmental Working Group, in a statement.
Michigan has the most sites in the country with 192. EWG
The researchers note that their work highlights the extent of the problem and how widely varied it is across the US. Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington, for example, reported 58,000 parts per trillion in their water systems, whereas Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California showed one of the highest levels across all military sites, with 8 million parts per trillion. In total, 117 military sites showed traces of PFAS contamination. The safe exposure level recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is no higher than 70 parts per trillion.
Meanwhile, Michigan had the most locations on the map at 192. It’s a “severe” problem, but the scientists are quick to add that the high number also reflects the state’s initiative to test for PFAS.
However, it is important to note that water systems with one or more detections of PFAS or another contaminate were calculated into an average, potentially skewing the results. As US News reports, the EPA cautions that the map "seems to show any samples for PFAS chemicals that have been collected, which may or may not be detections." The agency adds that it has not fully reviewed the quality of the data.
The US government does not require the military to clean up groundwater or wells and there is no enforceable standard for associated contamination of PFAS in such exercises, according to the database. A Pentagon estimate suggests a cleanup could come with a $2 billion tab.