PFAS – perfluoroalkyl substances, a family of more than 5,000 hardy chemicals used to make products ranging from firefighting foam to waterproof mascara – have widely pervaded the U.S. water supply, according to a new study by the private, nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Several of the chemicals have been linked to liver damage, kidney and testicular cancer, hormone disruption, and low birthweight, among other threats to health.
PFAS contamination has been recognized for some time, but the new study finds the poisons far more widespread than was thought. In 34 places where the study found PFAS in water, authorities had not reported the contamination.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the chemicals can last for decades, and more than 95 percent of the U.S. population has PFAS lodged in their bodies.
In 2018, the EWG used unpublished data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to estimate that about 110 million Americans – roughly a third of the population – had PFAS on board. The new study disputes that figure and lends credence to the CDC’s higher number.
The new study sampled tap water at 44 sites in 31 states and Washington, D.C. Only samples from Meridian, MI, which draws its water from 700-foot-deep wells, showed no PFAS.
In sites where PFAS were found, the average count was between six and seven varieties of the chemicals.
The five most contaminated areas found by the study:
- Brunswick County, NC (the state’s southeast coast)
- Iowa’s Quad Cities region, spanning from Davenport to Moline, IL.
- Miami, FL.
- Bergen County, NJ, bordering New York City across the Hudson River
- Wilmington, NC, just east of Brunswick County
Brunswick County and the Quad Cities area both scored above the EPA’s safe limit for two PFAS chemicals of 70 parts per trillion.
Other high-scoring areas include Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Louisville, KY.
Memphis, Little Rock, Sacramento, and Colorado Springs were among the lowest-testing areas.
PFAS have now been detected in rainwater, meaning the chemicals are being spread even where they didn’t leak into the ground from industrial processes.
Manufacturers phased out earlier versions of PFAS due to their rampant toxicity, although those chemicals are still in the ground and water. Later generations of PFAS have shown different, but no less harmful, effects.
Currently, there is no overall federal regulation of PFAS. Last year, Congress proposed laws that would force the government to clean up PFAS at military bases, which are sites that have high concentrations, and would force the FAA to allow airports to use PFAS-free firefighting foam. Other proposals are being developed.
Meanwhile, more than 20 states have imposed their own rules. Washington has banned PFAS from some products and New York has forbidden state agencies to buy food containers with PFAS in them.
In 2018, the Trump administration delayed public release of a new study showing the health effects of PFAS, fearing a “public relations nightmare.” The study, and two chains of cover-up emails, eventually were released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
TRENDPOST: Growing awareness of PFAS will force regulators and manufacturers to curtail their use. That process will evolve over several years; contamination will remain for decades unless massive clean-up costs are budgeted.
PFAS are usually found in greaseproof, waterproof coatings, so anything from couches and carpets to raincoats and fast-food wrappers are likely to contain them. Makeup containing ingredients with “fluoro” in their names also likely contain PFAS.
For the foreseeable future, it will remain up to consumers to check labels and make thoughtful, informed choices about their purchases.
TRENDPOST: Demand for “clean” water will accelerate across the globe driving demand for both bottled water (despite questionable quality) and water filters.