By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams
Environmental justice advocates on Thursday renewed calls for the Biden administration to finalize drinking water standards after the Environmental Protection Agency published data showing 26 million people in hundreds of U.S. communities have toxic “forever chemicals” in their water supply.
The EPA released data from an initial round of testing that confirmed per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)—called forever chemicals because they do not biodegrade and accumulate in the human body—in 431 water systems at levels above minimum reporting limits. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires U.S. utilities to test drinking water for 29 different PFAS compounds and publish results every five years.
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The findings—which are far more conservative than those of the U.S. Geological Survey and some nongovernmental research—come after the EPA in March proposed limits on the amounts of certain PFAS compounds in drinking water.
“The initial data indicate that multiple forever chemicals are being detected in public water systems, with two specific PFAS (PFOS and PFOA) concentrations above the proposed maximum contaminant levels (the highest levels of a contaminant that is allowed in drinking water) in over 150 systems,” said Elizabeth Southerland, a former EPA water specialist now with the advocacy group Environmental Protection Network. “It is critically important that EPA continue to release this data every quarter so the public can see as quickly as possible if their drinking water has PFAS levels of concern.”
Katie Pelch, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in a statement that “the PFAS testing results suggest that there is extensive contamination of tap water.”
“Our concern remains that these testing results significantly underreport the presence of PFAS in tap water, potentially misleading communities about the safety of their drinking water,” Pelch added. “This is because only a fraction of the PFAS that may be present in drinking water are monitored for, and utilities are not required to report PFAS detected, but at levels below the reporting limits.”
Erik Olson, NRDC’s senior strategic director for health, asserted that “the focus needs to remain on people in our communities who deserve to know if their drinking water is contaminated with harmful PFAS chemicals.”
“Federal, state, and local governing bodies must act swiftly to stop contamination, clean up polluted water, and safeguard the health of everyday people,” he added.
Forever chemicals have myriad uses, from nonstick cookware to waterproof clothing to firefighting foam. According to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, PFAS is linked to cancers of the kidneys and testicles, low infant weight, suppressed immune function, and other adverse health effects. It is found in the blood of 99% of Americans and a similar percentage of people around the world.
The EPA’s findings follow a 2020 Environmental Working Group (EWG) study that found more than 200 million Americans could have PFAS in their drinking water. The advocacy group maintains an interactive map showing more than 2,800 PFAS-contaminated sites in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and multiple U.S. territories.
“For decades, millions of Americans have unknowingly consumed water tainted with PFAS,” EWG senior vice president for government affairs Scott Faber said in a statement. “The new testing data shows that escaping PFAS is nearly impossible. The EPA has done its job, and the Biden White House must finalize drinking water standards this year.”
Melanie Benesh, EWG’s vice president of government affairs, said that “the PFAS pollution crisis threatens all of us. The EPA’s proposed limits also serve as a stark reminder of just how toxic these chemicals are to human health at very low levels.”
“The agency needs to finalize its proposal and make the limits for PFAS in water enforceable,” she added.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law signed by President Joe Biden in 2021 allocated $9 billion to invest in communities where drinking water is contaminated with PFAS and other toxins.
However, other bills to limit PFAS have died in Congress under intense lobbying from the chemical industry, which has long known—and conspired to conceal—the health and environmental dangers of forever chemicals.
Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.