Chemicals known as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are resistant to breaking down in the environment and have been linked to chronic, deadly conditions such as cancer, liver damage, and low birth weight. These toxins are used in firefighting foam and household cleaners, and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recently found that drinking water in the United States is far more contaminated with these chemicals than what was previously thought.
EWG findings reveal the group’s previous estimate in 2018, based on an unpublished U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analysis, that “110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS” could be far too low.” A draft report from an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reads, “The risk level for exposure to the chemicals should be up to 10 times lower than the 70 PPT threshold the EPA recommends.”
EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said just last year, “I want to make sure the American public understands 92 percent of the water everyday meets all the EPA requirements for safe drinking water.” Yet, the new data suggests this is far from reassuring. Researchers contend, “the EPA has known since at least 2001 about the problem of PFAS in drinking water but has so far failed to set an enforceable, nationwide legal limit.”
“It’s nearly impossible to avoid contaminated drinking water from these chemicals,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the report.
Of tap water samples taken by EWG from 44 sites in 31 states and Washington D.C., “only one location, Meridian, Mississippi, which relies on 700 foot (215 m) deep wells, had no detectable PFAS. Only Seattle and Tuscaloosa, Alabama had levels below 1 part per trillion (PPT)” (the limit EWG recommends).
“Everyone’s really exposed to a toxic soup of these PFAS chemicals,” Andrews said, referring to a mixture of other toxins likely present as well. In 34 places where EWG’s tests found PFAS, the toxins had not been publicly reported by the EPA or by state regulatory agencies. The EPA said it “has helped states and communities address PFAS and it is working to put into place acceptable limits. They have not given an estimated timeline for completion.
Researchers have estimated “as many as 32 million cases of waterborne disease occur nationwide every year.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC) found “42 outbreaks in 2013 and 2014, with 1,006 cases of illness, 124 hospitalizations and 13 deaths.” And, this data is going from those situations that have been reported. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. drinking water delivery system a D on its most recent infrastructure report card.
“Decades of chemical industry deception and government inaction and collusion have brought us to this crisis,” said Mark Ruffalo, a longtime environmental activist. “Nearly every American is carrying these dangerous chemicals in their blood, and as EWG’s new findings show, everywhere we look, we find more PFAS contamination of our tap water. The government has done little or nothing in 20 years, so it’s time for all of us to demand that our elected leaders do their jobs and pass laws to clean up this mess.”