So-called “forever chemicals” have been found in 43 out of 44 cities tested in a recent study. The research, conducted by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), suggests many more cities may also be contaminated with toxic PFAS chemicals (short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances).
The EWG analyzed tap water samples from 44 communities in 31 states and the District of Columbia. Only 1 of those locations did not contain PFAS: Meridian, Mississippi, which gets its drinking water from an extremely deep well.
Only 2 locations had PFAS levels that were below levels deemed “safe” to human health by independent researchers. Large metropolitan areas like Miami, Philadelphia, and New Orleans were shown to have the highest levels of PFAS contamination.
Based on the findings, the EWG stated in a report that scientists “now believe PFAS is likely detectable in all major water supplies in the U.S., almost certainly in all that use surface water.”
Why ‘Forever Chemicals’ Pose an Extreme Danger to Public Health
Research has shown that exposure to PFAS chemicals can lead to adverse health effects, including:
- Low infant birth weights
- Hormone disruption
- Immune deficiencies
The reason PFAS are called “forever chemicals” is because they appear to accumulate in the body and remain there forever. These types of manmade chemicals do not break down organically.
The EWG study analyzed a family of PFAS chemicals, including many not often included in tests by government agencies and water utilities. Moreover, it found levels to be significantly higher than the limits set by states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). An EPA agency spokesperson told BuzzFeed News:
“To date, EPA has developed methods to reliably detect 29 PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Aggressively addressing PFAS will continue to be an EPA priority in 2020 and we will provide additional information on our upcoming actions as it becomes available.”
More Research Needed
Despite the EWG’s unsettling findings, independent experts believe more research needs to be done. One scientist explained to BuzzFeed that the study does not necessarily mean that PFAS levels in water supplies have increased. It may merely mean that researchers are better able to detect levels. Researchers also do not all agree about the levels at which PFAS chemicals become toxic.
For the same reason, experts recommend caution when it comes to products that claim to test for PFAS. Many such water filters, for example, only monitor for the two most common types: PFOS & PFOA. (PFOA was used by DuPont for decades to make Teflon and was recently the subject of the film Dark Waters.) The EWG study, meanwhile, tested for 30 different PFAS chemicals.
Eric Roy, a DC-based chemist who produces water filters for specific regions of the country, explained the problem in an interview with Mic:
“There are no real ‘industry-standard’ protocols to test against the other PFAS. And some filter companies use this to their advantage and make really misleading claims based on selective testing — for example, only testing at the start of the filter lifetime when it’s fresh.”
Used in consumer products like non-stick pans, water-repellent fabrics, cleaning products, paints, and firefighting foam, PFAS chemicals have for decades been lightly regulated and widely used. This has led to their accumulation in bodies of water, soil, and air. Researchers now believe virtually all people on earth have been contaminated with forever chemicals.
Federal-Level Regulations Are Sorely Needed
While the widespread presence of PFAS chemicals is now well understood, the chemicals themselves are still being researched, and the list of potential side effects may only continue to grow. Additionally, while PFAS continue to be studied, regulators have been slow to adopt new controls, especially at the federal level.
Last year, Congress introduced a bill that would require the EPA to designate all PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances.” While initially enjoying bipartisan support, the bill eventually stalled after the White House expressed opposition and Congressional Republicans worried it went too far in regulating utilities.