A newly-released study and supplementary map show that 15 million Americans are exposed to toxins in their drinking water. The study, released in early June as a collaboration with the Environmental Working Group and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University, revealed that the issue is present in 27 states across the country.
The study focused on drinking water contaminated by particular types of perfluorochemicals also called PFCs. According to a publication from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, PFCs are a “large group of manufactured compounds” that are primarily used to make surfaces resist stains, water, and grease.
PFCs are largely found in products including stain-resistant carpeting, non-stick cookware, firefighting equipment, and food packaging. The National Institutes of Health notes that PFCs are slow to disintegrate and that some PFCs take years to leave the body.
“Poly- and perfluoroalkyl acids (PFASs) are ubiquitous in our lives,” an editorial from Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D, NIEHS director and Philippe Grandjean, M.D., D.M.Sc. of of the Harvard School of Public Health stated regarding long-chain types of PFCs. “These chemicals are used as surfactants and as water and oil repellents in a variety of consumer products such as cosmetics, food packaging, furnishings, and clothing. Since their initial marketing more than 60 years ago, extensive research has demonstrated that the long-chain PFASs are highly persistent, bioaccumulative, and toxic (Buck et al. 2011). As a result, they are being phased out in many countries.”
The Environmental Working Group characterizes PFCs, particularly PFASs, as a serious public health issue. Their study describes the widespread presence of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), two forms of PFCs recognized as harmful, as a “contamination crisis.” PFOA is a PFC found in Teflon, and PFOS is a PFC found in products such as Scotchguard.
The EWG study has been followed by the creation of an interactive map, based on new information as well as federal and public data, detailing the locations where drinking water has been contaminated. According to EWG, the new map is “the most comprehensive resource available to track PFC pollution in the U.S.”
The study’s press release notes that for 25 years, the EPA has not added any new contaminants to the Safe Drinking Water Act. The release pointed out a $671 million settlement paid earlier this year by DuPont and Chemours after residents in West Virginia and Ohio sued the companies for polluting drinking water with PFOA, a compound used in Teflon.
According to EWG:
The map focuses on the most well-studied fluorinated compounds – perfluorooctanoic acid or PFOA, formerly used to make DuPont’s Teflon, and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard. Because of their nonstick, waterproof and grease-repellent properties, these and closely related chemicals were used in hundreds of consumer products and industrial applications, including cookware, outdoor clothing, food packaging and firefighting foam. The Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention have found PFOA or PFOS in the bodies of virtually all Americans, and these chemicals can be passed through the umbilical cord from mother to fetus in the womb.
EWG’s study added that federal enforcements to minimize levels of long-chain PFCs do not exist, and “there is no ongoing national-level testing of PFCs in drinking water.” The EPA has set health advisories for PFOA and PFOS.
An earlier study, conducted by Harvard University in 2016, illustrated similar numbers regarding the presence of the chemicals in the United States’ water supply. The Harvard study found PFASs in water supplies in 33 states serving over 16 million people. That study showed that “66 water supplies serving 6 million people had at least one water sample at or above the EPA’s safety limits,” according to PBS.