Toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS are more prevalent in the drinking water of dozens of US cities, with new findings confirming that exposure to the "forever chemicals" has been previously underestimated both by the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental researchers.
A new report from Environmental Working Group (EWG), subsequent to widespread testing in the United States, produced test results suggest that PFAS, and related and similarly dangerous chemicals that are not normally included in water sampling, are likely in all major water supplies in the US.
PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals,) are a class of heat and water-resistant chemicals that are used in a wide variety of applications including flame-retardants, and non-stick and industrial products, and are contained in many consumer goods such as raincoats, cookware and packaging. The chemicals are known carcinogens that do not degrade in the environment or in the human body.
US President Donald Trump has said that he will veto the PFAS Action Act of 2019 which would have set deadlines for the country's Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to reduce continuing PFAS contamination and to set minimum standards for PFAS in drinking water throughout the country.
A 7 January White House announcement came a few days after USEPA missed a promised deadline to present its proposal for establishing an enforceable legal limit by year-end.
The bill, as reviewed by the House of Representatives on January 10, requires the establishment of a federal drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS within two years and sets deadlines to restrict PFAS discharges into the air and water. It immediately designates the PFAS chemicals as “hazardous substances.” It is designed with the intention of reducing unintended, involuntary exposure to PFAS.
EWG’s test samples came from a wide range of water bodies: some that service fewer than 10,000 people to major municipalities. Some of the highest PFAS levels were found in samples from Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans, and the northern suburbs of New Jersey.
According to the new report, “EWG has mapped PFAS contamination of drinking water or ground water in almost 1,400 sites in 49 states. Previously, our analysis of unpublished EPA data estimates that water supplies for 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS – an estimate that could be much too low, based on our new findings.”
EWG’s 2019 test results differ sharply from nationwide sampling by most public water systems mandated by the EPA between 2013 and 2015. The EPA tests reported that 36 of 43 water systems tested had no detectable PFAS. But the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring program included only six PFAS compounds, a very small proportion of over 600 active PFAS chemicals. In addition, the minimum reporting limits were from 10 parts per trillion (ppt) to 90 ppt, obscuring the full scope of possible PFAS contamination.
For instance, EWG’s test found 43 samples where PFAS was detected and the total level varied from less than 1 ppt to almost 186 ppt. The samples with detectable levels of PFAS contained, on average, six or seven different compounds. One sample had 13 different PFAS at varying concentrations. EWG lists the 30 PFAS compounds tested for, and the frequency of detection in an appendix to the report.
The new test results highlight the ubiquity of PFAS and the vulnerability of the nation’s drinking water supply to PFAS contamination, according to EWG.
The EPA has failed to set an enforceable, nationwide legal limit and in 2016, the agency issued a non-enforceable lifetime health advisory for PFOA and PFOS in drinking water of 70 ppt. According to EWG, independent scientific studies have recommended a safe level for PFAS in drinking water of 1 ppt.
Because there is no federal standard, some states have set legal limits but the type of the contaminant and the volume of recommended maximum limit vary. New Jersey was the first to set to a maximum contaminant limit for the compound PFNA, at 13 ppt, and has proposed standards of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA. Some other states have now set or proposed limits or guidelines for PFAS in drinking water, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina and Vermont.