Environment Health Kenny Stancil Politics

Nearly 42,000 Sources of Toxic ‘Forever Chemicals’ Put U.S. Drinking Water at Risk: Study

Water testing bottles near the Kalamazoo River watershed in Michigan.
Two sample bottles and a sample collection unit are pictured near Portage Creek in the Kalamazoo River watershed in Michigan. (Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy / Flickr)

By Kenny Stancil / Common Dreams

Bolstering calls for stronger PFAS regulations and more testing, a new analysis released Tuesday finds nearly 42,000 potential sources of toxic “forever chemicals” that could contaminate drinking water in communities throughout the United States.

In their peer-reviewed study, which was published in a special issue of Water Science, Environmental Working Group (EWG) scientists examined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Enforcement and Compliance History Online database to identify potential sources of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pollution in the nation’s surface and drinking water.

According to their investigation, solid waste landfills, wastewater treatment plants, electroplaters and metal finishers, and petroleum refiners were the facilities that appeared most often as possible sources of PFAS contamination.

Dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down and can persist in the environment and bioaccumulate over time, PFAS are a class of synthetic compounds that have been linked to adverse health outcomes, including a weakened immune systemreproductive and developmental harms, and an increased susceptibility to cancer, among other negative effects.

EWG researchers point out that discharges of PFAS with industrial wastewater are a major driver of surface and drinking water pollution—putting the health of tens of millions of Americans in jeopardy. Despite these risks, the paper notes, the vast majority of water systems nationwide lack both the technology and the funds to filter out forever chemicals.

“It is critical that the EPA start regulating PFAS—now,” David Andrews, the lead author of the study and a senior scientist at EWG, said in a statement. “Every community in the U.S. is likely affected by PFAS contamination, but those living near or downstream from industrial facilities may be more at risk.”

“Our investigation identifies a huge number of potential sources of contamination,” Andrews continued. “It also provides a framework for deciding where and what to test so we can end releases into the environment.”

The paper includes case studies of data available from California and Michigan, which show that PFAS pollution is common at a variety of sites, heightening the importance of widespread testing for forever chemicals in wastewater.

“We need to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from these industrial discharges, which affects more and more Americans every day.”

“The results from states like Michigan show there is a wide variety of sources of PFAS in surface water,” said Andrews. “Many landfills and industrial sites release PFAS at detectable concentrations that may exceed state limits or health guidelines for PFAS in water.”

He added that “it is urgent that ongoing releases of PFAS be identified. We need to stop nonessential uses of PFAS and use filters to reduce these compounds from our water.”

Getting forever chemicals out of the country’s water supplies “remains a nationwide challenge,” EWG stressed, “but it’s one that can be met through comprehensive tests of surface water and drinking water, along with tests of wastewater from potential PFAS sources.”

In July, the U.S. House passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which would improve the federal oversight and facilitate the cleanup of forever chemicals, but the U.S. Senate has yet to take up the legislation.

Scott Faber, EWG’s senior vice president for government affairs, said that “we need to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from these industrial discharges, which affects more and more Americans every day. That’s the first step.”

“The second step is for the EPA to set a national PFAS drinking water standard,” said Farber. “And the third is to clean up legacy pollution.”

6 comments

  1. The half life of these chemicals will be here long after we have annihilated ourselves and the planet from toxins-not only the residue from plastic but the particulates that breakdown smaller and smaller until we find them in our organs and bloodstream-we did not have to swallow plastic bags unlike our other creatures on earth-we are just ingesting what we cannot see. The horror it will eventually inflict.

  2. If you think it’s bad here, you should check out China and India, where all of our high pollution mfg plants relocated. Now everyone thinks it’s a good idea to bring all that mfg (so called middle class jobs) back home. Be careful what you ask for.

  3. I would venture to guess that 99 & 44/100s percent of the people who browse through this article — and didn’t happen to recently watch John Oliver’s multi-award winning show on this subject — will come away thinking something like, “Hmm, I’ll have to keep an eye out for that PFAS stuff, should I ever bump into some.” Little realizing that obviously WAY too many people already have non-stick pots and pans currently lurking in their kitchens just waiting to be over-heated and/or scrapped — thus implanting the dreaded and deadly PFAS into their next meal.

  4. Our environmental problems are accumulating at an accelerating rate. Climate change, rising acidity of the oceans, over-fishing and plastic pollution of said oceans, the highest species extinction rate since the meteor that struck Earth 65 million years ago, lead and 42,000 forever chemicals in our drinking water… but hey, did you see the Dow was up 500 points yesterday! So, it’s all good.

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