Dangerous levels of PFAS detected in drinking water for 27 million Americans

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Toxic “forever chemicals” are far more widespread through the country’s drinking water systems than previously known, according to new EPA data released recently.

An analysis conducted by USA TODAY has revealed that hundreds of community water systems in the United States, which provide drinking water to more than 27 million citizens, have been found to contain at least one of 29 types of chemicals in concentrations that surpass the Environmental Protection Agency’s new lower reporting limits.

PFAS, also known as Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, have been widely used for years in nonstick coatings, water-repellent fabrics and other household and industrial products. However, they are now known to increase the risk of some cancers and cause other health effects.

Due to their near indestructible nature, these chemicals have earned the nickname “forever chemicals” because they accumulate over time in human bodies.

Jamie DeWitt, Professor of Pharmacology and Toxicology at East Carolina University, emphasized that “without knowledge, one cannot implement any changes in their home.”

He went on to state that the new proposed limits provide information for communities and households about what they need to do in order to reduce their exposure if it is higher than the limit.

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This map shows water systems included in the EPA’s records, as of Aug. 17. It’s based on boundaries developed by SimpleLab, a water-testing company.

The EPA estimates that thousands of public water systems will submit additional PFAS sample results over the next few years, and the new data is just a fraction of these findings.

Of the nearly 2,200 systems included so far, 431 measured PFAS above the EPA’s reporting levels, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the data. That’s almost 20%.

Suffolk County, New York, ties with the city of Fresno, California, and Robeson County, North Carolina, for the highest number of unique PFAS contaminants found above the EPA’s limits: 10.

“Suffolk County has expanded its own laboratory capability for testing PFAS in drinking water and has supported the efforts of the New York State Department of Health to establish stringent drinking water standards for PFOS,” said Gregson H. Pigott, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services commissioner, in a written statement.

PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid, is among the most common PFAS chemicals.

At present, there are no nationally enforceable standards for PFAS in drinking water in the US. However, some states, such as New Jersey and Wisconsin, have adopted their own enforceable maximum contaminant levels for certain types of PFAS.

Earlier this year, the EPA proposed legally enforceable limits on six PFAS chemicals in drinking water, including PFOS. Until these limits are finalized, public water systems are not required to take any action.

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The agency has also issued health advisories for four chemicals included in the latest data release; however, these are only guidelines and not legally binding.

“Utilities do not have to follow health advisories because they’re not legally enforceable,” said DeWitt, the East Carolina professor. “But at least with respect to facilities managers with whom I have spoken, they all are working to ensure that the water they provide to their customers does meet health advisory levels, even though they don’t have to do it.”

Most national testing programs have excluded private wells and generally failed to collect data from rural areas, despite the fact that 52 million people depend on small water systems serving populations of fewer than 10,000, as noted in a USGS study.

To address this, the EPA’s latest data release focuses on both small and large utilities.

“There should be more information in the next couple of years for some of the folks in rural America,” said Kelly Smalling, a research hydrologist at the USGS and the study’s lead author.

The EPA recommends that those whose water supply comes from affected systems consider installing in-home filtration systems for additional assurance.




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