A recent study by the Environmental Working Group has found dangerous levels of toxic, fluorinated chemicals in drinking water supplies across the United States. Commonly known as “forever chemicals,” these perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) do not break down in human bodies nor the environment. Instead, they build up within our blood and organs, posing a great health risk.
Unchecked, these high concentrations of PFAS may lead to a national drinking water crisis. Yet despite the evident health and environmental dangers, the EPA has done little to combat water contamination.
Where ‘Forever Chemicals’ Are Lurking
In 2018, the EPA estimated that 110 million Americans may be at risk of PFAS contamination. Yet recent research from the Environmental Working Group has found that this number is far too low. Rather, forever chemicals are likely contaminating every major U.S. water supply — especially those extracted from surface water.
According to The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, exposure to PFAS usually occurs by consuming contaminated food and water. Yet forever chemicals are also present in all types of everyday objects.
For example, PFAS are used to create fluoropolymer coatings to protect from heat, oil, grease, water, and stains. These coatings can appear everywhere, such as on non-stick cooking surfaces, clothing, food packaging, furniture, and adhesives.
“Virtually the blood of every American is contaminated with PFAS,” said environmental health specialist Sydney Evans.
The question then becomes, how much contamination are we talking about? In short, it varies. In some cities, like Seattle, PFAS compose less than 1 part per trillion (ppt) of their drinking water supply. And in Meridian, Mississippi, no PFAS were detected at all — a fortune likely attributable to the 700-foot deep wells that extract their drinking water. But other locations are not as lucky.
In Brunswick County, North Carolina, the tap water has about 185.9 parts per trillion of certain PFAS. For reference, the Environmental Working Group suggests a limit of 1 ppt before the concentration of PFAS becomes a health risk.
Among the other most contaminated cities are Quad Cities, Iowa; Miami, Florida; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and New Orleans, Louisiana. The suburbs of New Jersey and New York City are also highly susceptible to PFAS, as are Chicago, Illinois and Columbus, Ohio.
The Dangers of PFAS in Our Drinking Water
Despite the lack of EPA regulations, PFAS can present significant health risks. Although little research has looked into the effects of PFAS, we do know that they sometimes correlate with lower birth rates, cancer, decreased vaccine effectiveness, and liver damage.
PFAS can also affect reproduction, possibly harming fetal development. It is therefore especially unsafe to consume PFAS during pregnancy.
The CDC also discovered adverse effects of PFAS in studies on animals. They found that large amounts of PFAS could lead to stunted growth and development, thyroid complications, and liver injury — among other issues.
While we cannot escape the presence of PFAS, we can limit our exposure to a degree. The Environmental Working Group’s guide sheet is a good place to start for those concerned about forever chemicals.
The EPA’s Lacking Response
With dangerous levels of PFAS found or suspected in nearly every major U.S. metropolitan area’s drinking water, immediate action is a must. Beyond increasing the abundant risks to human health, PFAS also affect fish and wildlife — which can harm the entire food chain as a result.
To make matters worse, PFAS often go unreported entirely. Because PFAS has no regulations, utility companies can choose to independently contract water tests for PFAS. In doing so, they can abstain from sharing their reports with the EPA.
In addition, the EPA only requires PFAS water tests for systems serving over 10,000 citizens. This, in turn, places rural communities at high risk of unknown contamination. Accordingly, the EPA’s data on the presence of PFAS are often severely underreported.
Regardless, the EPA’s next chief of staff, Mandy Gunasekara, has a track record for environmentally neglectful decisions — such as pushing President Trump to leave the Paris Agreement and enact several environmental rollbacks.
Under her leadership, an effective solution to this drinking water crisis does not seem likely. After all, the agency has known about the dangers and presence of PFAS in our drinking water for 20 years. Whatever solution they come up with, it probably won’t be a top priority.
In the meantime, scientists are taking matters into their own hands. Recently, researchers at Drexel University discovered a way to permanently remove forever chemicals from drinking water. Spoiler alert: it involves cold plasma blasts.