Turns out America’s drinking water woes expand far beyond lead. A class of common chemicals used in everything from nonstick pans and stain-treated carpets, clothing and furniture to fast-food packaging is a source of widespread contamination in certain pockets of the United States. Could you be drinking water harboring PFAS contamination?
According to a recent report by Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Northeastern University, 43 states are currently home to at least 610 contaminated locations. These areas of PFAS contamination include public drinking water systems supplying water for an estimated 19 million Americans.
And leaked FDA documents that were presented at a scientific conference in Helsinki, Finland, show that PFAS have been detected in dairy products, poultry, red meat, fish, leafy greens and store-bought chocolate cake. In fact, the PFAS levels were double or more the current federal advisory level!
You know that chocolate cake with icing that you grab from the grocery store? Well the PFAS detected in one sample were more than 250 times higher than the federal guidelines for drinking water, according to the Associated Press.
In response to these findings, an FDA spokesperson said that the agency thought the contamination was “not likely to be a human health concern, despite the fact that the tests exceeded the existing federal recommendations for PFAS levels.
So why is all of this information problematic? PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a group of chemicals found in common household items like nonstick products; they’re also used extensively in the military. Concerns of major PFAS health risks continue to mount, with a 2018 review by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealing the health effects associated with PFAS exposure include cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, pregnancy-induced hypertension and an increased risk of thyroid disease and asthma.
This is a problem that may be affecting you at this very moment. According to the EWG, an estimated 99 percent of American currently have some degree of PFAS contamination. Can that really be possible? The American Cancer Society website states, “Studies have found that it is present worldwide at very low levels in just about everyone’s blood. Higher blood levels have been found in community residents where local water supplies have been contaminated by PFOA. People exposed to PFOA in the workplace can have levels many times higher.”
What Is PFAS?
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS are also referred to as “forever chemicals” because they remain in our soil and water — and our bodies — for a long time. This family of man-made chemicals is used in all kinds of products and industrial applications to make surfaces resistant to water, lipids and stains. Nonstick cookware is one of the best household examples of PFAS usage. But widespread contamination is also blamed on plants that manufacture these chemicals and the widespread use of the chemical in firefighting foams.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS can be found in:
- Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water
- Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (for example, Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products and firefighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs)
- Workplace, including production facilities or industries (for example, chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS
- Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (for example, manufacturers, landfills, wastewater treatment plants, firefighter training facilities)
- Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS chemicals have the ability to build up and persist over time
The Toxic History of PFAS
It all started in 1946 when a company named DuPont provided consumers with a new line of Teflon® nonstick cookware. Teflon® is a brand name for a man-made chemical known as polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is another man-made chemical used to make Teflon. PFOA is a type of PFAS.
This cookware, while innovative at the time, has lead to the environment, animals and human beings experiencing PFAS contamination. The problem is that companies using PFAS in their manufacturing have factories known to pollute the water and air around them with these toxic chemicals.
This is yet another example of lax U.S. laws that allow chemicals into widespread use before being tested for long-term impacts on human health.
Fast forward to 2001 when a Teflon plant caused widespread PFAS contamination to drinking water in West Virginia. More and more examples of PFAS contamination in the environment, as well as in humans beings, continue to arise.
Stories like these lead to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to form the PFOA Stewardship Program in 2006, given the major concerns of PFAS detection in drinking water and the U.S. population. To make matters worse, the agency realized that these chemicals weren’t going away anytime soon due to their persistence in the environment as well as their long half-life in people.
The EPA asked eight top companies in the PFASs industry to agree to a reduction in PFOA facility emissions and product content by 95 percent no later than 2010, and to also work toward complete elimination of PFOA from emissions and product content no later than 2015. The participating companies included Arkema, Asahi, BASF Corporation (successor to Ciba), Clariant, Daikin, 3M/Dyneon, DuPont, and Solvay Solexis.
Another historical source of PFAS is military airports using aqueous film forming foams (AFFFs) which combine fluoro- and hydrocarbon-surfactant technologies to put out fires. AFFFs are also called firefighting foams. Military bases, civilian airports and firefighter training sites are also known for using this foam.
So where are we at today? According to the EPA, “Certain PFAS chemicals are no longer manufactured in the United States as a result of phase outs including the PFOA Stewardship Program in which eight major chemical manufacturers agreed to eliminate the use of PFOA and PFOA-related chemicals in their products and as emissions from their facilities. Although PFOA and PFOS are no longer manufactured in the United States, they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the United States in consumer goods such as carpet, leather and apparel, textiles, paper and packaging, coatings, rubber and plastics.”
Why is there such concern over PFAS contamination? As time goes on, studies continue to unveil the dangerous possible side effects of PFASs. According to the CDC, some, but not all, studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown that certain types of PFASs may:
- Affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
- Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- Interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- Increase cholesterol levels
- Affect the immune system
- Increase the risk of cancer
Main Takeaways from the Report
On May 2019, the Environmental Working Group (EWG), in conjunction with the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI) at Northeastern University, released an updated version of its interactive map of PFAS-contaminated sites in the United States.
Highlights of this work between EWG and SSEHRI:
- The information compiled was taken from Pentagon data and water utility reports.
- At least 610 locations in 43 states are now known to be affected.
- The last time the map was updated, in July 2018, there were 172 contaminated sites in 40 states.
- Locations include drinking water systems providing water to an estimated 19 million people.
- Other locations with PFAS pollution include military bases, airports, industrial plants and dumps and firefighter training sites.
Mapping It Out
According to the EWG, as of March 2019, at least 610 locations in 43 states are known to be contaminated, including drinking water systems serving an estimated 19 million people.
You’re probably wondering if the town you live in is being affected by PFAS contamination. An interactive map created by the EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University is now said to be “the most comprehensive resource available to track PFAS pollution in the United States.”
Overall, 43 states tested positive for contaminated drinking water. If you look at the map, right away you’ll likely notice that certain areas actually contain clusters of water systems that tested positive for PFOS, PFOA or another contaminant. States with notable clusters include California, Michigan, New Jersey, New York and North Carolina.
Check out the EWG Interactive Map: PFAS Contamination In the U.S. to see more information about where you live and to spread this link around so more people can be aware of possible contamination in their area.
What Is the Government Doing About PFAS?
As mentioned earlier, the EPA started its PFOA Stewardship Program in 2006. In 2012, the EPA added PFOA and five other PFCs to the list of contaminants to be monitored in a selection of public water systems around the United Stated. This data is reported to the EPA under the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule 3 (UCMR3) and is publicly available. In fact, this public information is actually how some people found out about PFSA contamination in their water supplies.
In 2016, the EPA issued a non-regulatory lifetime Health Advisory (HA) of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for individual and combined PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. A lifetime Health Advisory refers to a concentration that is not expected to cause adverse health effects over a lifetime of consistent daily exposure at that level.
Currently, the EPA does not have a national or legally enforceable limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water. Some states have taken matters into their own hands. A few states initiated their own standards of acceptable PFAS levels, with the strictest being Vermont at 20 ppt.
Another example of states making an effort to improve the problem is New Jersey. In April 2019, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, for example, officially proposed safe drinking water standards (also referred to as maximum contaminant levels or MCLs) for PFOA and PFOS.
The EWG’s “Health-Based Standards” for PFAS:
- PFAS in drinking water: 1 ppt as the total concentration for the sum of all PFAS
- PFAS in groundwater and cleanup of contaminated sites: 1 ppt as the total concentration for the sum of all PFAS
In February 2019, EPA released its Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) Action Plan. According to this plan, “Where deemed appropriate and necessary, the EPA will prioritize preventing environmental contamination and identifying approaches that reduce the costs of PFAS management faced by local communities.” The plan also says that in 2019, the EPA will invite the public to comment on its efforts to date, including “recommending additional information the Agency should consider in its regulatory determination.”
The EPA also provided a statement to CBS News regarding the EWG’s interactive map showing detection of PFAS at specific locations across the country:
“EWG’s map seems to show any samples for PFAS chemicals that have been collected, which may or may not be detections. Because EPA has not fully reviewed the quality of the underlying data, and based on the agency’s commitment to good risk communication with the public, EPA cannot recommend the map be used to determine where public health risks associated with PFAS chemicals may or may not exist. The agency’s efforts continue to be focused on taking the actions committed to in the PFAS Action Plan.”
PFAS vs. PFOA vs. PFOS
All these acronyms with similar letters can get a bit confusing. What are PFOA, PFOS and PFAS? Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) are fluorinated compounds that fall under the larger umbrella of compounds known as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).
In other words, PFAS are a group of man-made chemicals that include PFOA and PFOS. (A new chemical known as GenX and many other chemicals also fall under the category of PFAS.) PFOA and PFOS are the most commonly found and most studied PFAS chemicals.
Both of these PFAS have been voluntarily phased out by the industries that previously used them for their ability to repel both water and oil. Before they were phased out, PFOA and PFOS were both commonly added to products to make them non-stick, waterproof or resistant to stains.
Although companies stopped using them years ago, PFAS contamination continues to be a major concern all over the United States, since companies who used PFASs like PFOS and PFOA contaminated the soil, water and air around their factories well into the 1970s. A scientific review published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found: “The global historical industry-wide emissions of total PFCAs from direct (manufacture, use, consumer products) and indirect (PFCA impurities and/or precursors) sources were estimated to be 3200−7300 [metric tons].”
The worrisome part? It only takes tiny exposures to trigger possible health impacts.
PFAS contamination persists in the environment and our bodies today. The EPA reveals: “In the environment, some PFAS break down slowly, if at all, allowing bioaccumulation (concentration) to occur in humans and wildlife. Some have been found to be toxic to laboratory animals, producing reproductive, developmental, and systemic effects in laboratory tests.” According to the EPA, PFOA has specifically been linked with cancer while PFOS has been associated with thyroid hormone disruption.
Levels in Water vs. Our Bodies
We now know that PFAS contamination is an issue for our waterways, drinking water, soil, air, animals and human beings. According to the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, PFAS chemicals are even detected in polar bears in the Arctic.
According to a scientific review published in 2017, when it comes to PFAS exposure through drinking water, “children can have the highest exposures due to their higher intake on a body weight basis. In order to protect populations from PFAS exposure from drinking water intake, drinking water and drinking water sources should be monitored nationwide. Contamination occurs often at certain hot-spots and in the past these hotspots have mostly been discovered by chance.”
Another scientific article published in 2017 reveals that “empirical observations and toxicokinetic models consistently demonstrate that serum PFOA levels in adults increase on average by more than 100 times the drinking water concentration.” So in other words, drinking water with PFAS contamination may result in humans having an even higher level of PFAS in their bodies than the source of the toxic pollution (drinking water)!
What You Can Do About PFAS Contamination
To avoid PFAS on a personal level, steer clear of products that contain PFAS including:
- Non-stick cookware
- Food packaging, including microwave popcorn bags and fast food wrappers
- Stain-resistant carpets and furniture
- Outdoor gear with a “durable water repellent” coating
Instead of non-stick cookware, consider healthier nontoxic options of cookware. You may also want to consider avoiding fabrics treated with nonstick chemicals including Teflon, Scotchgard, Stainmaster, Polartec, and Gore-tex.
You can have your water tested for PFAS by a private company. You can also take a look at the EPA’s Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule (UCMR) Data and U.S. State Resources about PFAS.
If you have PFAS contamination in your drinking water, there are some things you can do to help yourself. For starters, you can use certain types of water filters. Both granular activated carbon (GAC) and reverse osmosis (RO) filters are known to decrease PFAS substances. Both systems are known to help, but it’s important to note that they provide less water flow than a standard water faucet. The state of Michigan (which currently has water contamination issues) provides information comparing a GAC system vs a RO system.
In March 2019, bipartisan legislation known as the PFAS Detection Act of 2019 was introduced to Congress. This act would give the U.S. Geological Survey authority to test surface and groundwater for PFAS pollution, with a special focus on water near sites already known or suspected to be contaminated. You can visit Congress.gov to receive alerts regarding this bill. For more information on how to call or write your Congress regarding H.R. 1976: PFAS Detection Act of 2019, you can check out GovTrack.
Unfortunately, PFAS contamination is a public health concern that isn’t going away anytime soon. Hopefully, more will be done at the federal and/or state level to improve this problem for us all. In the meantime, you can do what you can to reduce your exposure to hazardous man-made chemicals like PFAS.
And again, the takeaway? We need to elect officials who are working for us, not toxic industries that pollute us for centuries.