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Nearly half of US drinking water taps likely contain forever chemicals

A study from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) reveals that close to half of all drinking water taps in the U.S. likely contain PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” that could lead to severe health implications including certain types of cancer. 

The alarming study represents the first nationwide attempt to estimate the presence of PFAS in private as well as regulated water supplies. This is a step beyond the understanding that forever chemicals are present in a range of consumer products from nonstick cookware to water-resistant clothing.

Future decisions regarding drinking water

The USGS did not issue any policy suggestions based on the findings. However, study lead author Kelly Smalling underscored the importance of the study’s results for influencing individual and institutional decisions regarding drinking water. The findings can inform decisions about whether to treat drinking water, test it, or seek additional information about the local situation from the state.

The research is timely, given the current review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of a proposal made in March to impose federal drinking water limits on six forms of forever chemicals. 

PFAS, or per- and polyfluorinated substances, are especially concerning because they linger in the human body for years and persist in the environment without degrading. The EPA is expected to make a final decision on this proposal by late 2023 or 2024.

The government has yet to prohibit companies from discharging these hazardous chemicals into public wastewater systems. According to Scott Faber, a senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the government should prioritize addressing the issue at its source. Faber stresses the importance of obliging polluters to treat their waste, likening the current approach to installing a stoplight after an accident has already occurred.

The potential health impacts of forever chemicals have been under investigation for some time. Studies involving lab animals have found potential links between PFAS and various health conditions, including cancers of the kidney and testes, high blood pressure, and low birth weight.

How the research was conducted 

The USGS study used samples that were directly obtained from taps in 716 different locations, instead of relying on measurements from water treatment plants or groundwater wells supplying them, as is the norm with federal and state programs. The samples, collected between 2016 and 2021, included 447 locations relying on public supplies and 269 utilizing private wells. 

A diverse range of sites was examined, including national parks, residential and rural areas with no identified PFAS sources, and urban centers with industry or waste sites known to generate PFAS.

Smalling and her team tested for 32 detectable PFAS compounds, although thousands more are believed to exist but remain undetectable with current technology. The most frequently detected types were PFBS, PFHxS, PFOA, and PFOS. Most samples contained two types, though some had as many as nine, with a median concentration of about seven parts per trillion for all PFAS types.

Exposure to forever chemicals

The analysis revealed that the most significant exposures are in cities and near potential sources of PFAS, particularly in areas such as the Eastern Seaboard, Great Lakes and Great Plains urban centers, and Central and Southern California. Still, it’s noteworthy that many of the tests, predominantly in rural areas, detected no PFAS at all.

Based on this comprehensive data, researchers estimate that at least one form of forever chemicals could be found in approximately 45 percent of tap water samples nationwide. This discovery highlights the need for private well users to test their water for PFAS and contemplate installing filters. Activated carbon or reverse osmosis membrane filters can effectively remove these compounds, said Faber.

He emphasized the crucial need for those using private wells to have their water tested for PFAS and to consider the installation of filters, which can contain activated carbon or reverse osmosis membranes, as effective measures to remove these harmful compounds

Faber interprets the USGS study as irrefutable evidence of the pervasive nature of PFAS, noting that individuals who rely on private wells are particularly susceptible to the damage these chemicals can inflict. He states, “The USGS study is further evidence that PFAS is incredibly pervasive and folks who rely on private wells are particularly vulnerable to the harms caused by these chemicals.”


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