Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

Are Chemicals in Drinking Water Giving People Cancer?

Health + Wellness

By Brian Bienkowski

Traces of 18 unregulated chemicals were found in drinking water from more than one-third of U.S. water utilities in a nationwide sampling, according to new, unpublished research by federal scientists.

Included are 11 perfluorinated compounds, an herbicide, two solvents, caffeine, an antibacterial compound, a metal and an antidepressant, reports Environmental Health News.

Photo credit:
Shutterstock

While studies increasingly report newly emerging contaminants in wastewater, there has been little data on which ones are in drinking water. Researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analyzed single samples of untreated and treated water from 25 U.S. utilities that voluntarily participated in the project.

Twenty-one contaminants were detected—mostly in low concentrations of parts per trillion—in treated drinking water from at least nine of the utilities. Eighteen of the chemicals are not regulated under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act so utilities do not have to meet any limit or even monitor for them.

“The good news is the concentrations are generally pretty low,” said Dana Kolpin, a research hydrologist with the USGS who participated in the study. “But there’s still the unknown. Are there long-term consequences of low-level exposure to these chemicals?”

For many of the contaminants, little is known about potential human health effects of low doses. But one of the perfluorinated compounds, known as PFOA, has been linked to a variety of health problems, including cancer, among people in communities where water is contaminated by a chemical plant in West Virginia.

Of 251 chemicals, bacteria, viruses and microbes the scientists measured, 117 were not detected in any of the treated drinking water. Twenty-one were found in water from more than one-third of the 25 utilities (nine or more) and 113 were found in less than one-third (eight or fewer).

Four of the chemicals found in the samples—the metal strontium, the herbicide metolachlor, PFOS and PFOA—are on the EPA’s list of chemicals under consideration for drinking water standards. The EPA plans to make decisions regarding at least five of the contaminants on its list next year.

“We’re hoping through this work the EPA will do a much more intensive contaminant candidate list and develop new methods and requirements for drinking water plants,” said Edward Furlong, a scientist with the USGS who participated in the study.

Perfluorinated chemicals, which were found most frequently, are widely used in a variety of industrial processes, including manufacture of some nonstick and stain-resistant food packaging, fabrics and cookware.

The two most common perfluorinated compounds, PFOS and PFOA, in the utilities’ water have been detected in the blood of nearly all people in the U.S.

A panel of scientists has concluded there is a “probable link” between PFOA in drinking water and high cholesterol, ulcerative colitis, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, kidney cancer and pregnancy-induced hypertension. The findings were based on people in Mid-Ohio Valley communities whose water was polluted with PFOA from a DuPont plant.

PFOS, used in Scotchgard until 3M phased it out in 2002, has been linked to attention disorders in children and thyroid disease in men.

The EPA has classified metolachlor as a possible human carcinogen based on studies of highly exposed rats. Strontium can affect bone growth, according to some animal studies that used doses much higher than those found in drinking water.

The perfluorinated compounds were at similar concentrations in the untreated and treated drinking water, suggesting that treatment techniques are largely unsuccessful. Only one plant was successful at removing them and it used activated carbon treatment.

Activated carbon, ozone and UV treatments are generally better at removal than traditional chlorine treatment, but such techniques are often prohibitively expensive, said EPA research chemist Susan Glassmeyer, who led the project.

“People resent having to pay anything for water,” she said. “There’s the thought that there’s a God-given right to have as much as we want but, if you want the cleanest water, these techniques take money.”

Treatment also can sometimes transform compounds into new ones, said Laurel Schaider, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health.

“Chlorination and other treatments technologies will remove some contaminants, but will react with others,” Schaider said. “Some compounds may appear to be removed but may be transformed to a chemical we know even less about.”

Glassmeyer said the utilities, which remain anonymous, represented a mix of large and small and used different water treatment technologies.

Preliminary findings of the study, which is expected to be published next year, were presented by the scientists at a toxicology conference in Nashville last month.

Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Lit candles, flowers and signs are seen in front of the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland on May 31, 2020. Aleksander Kalka / NurPhoto / Getty Images

As protests are taking place across our nation in response to the killing of George Floyd, we want to acknowledge the importance of this protest and the Black Lives Matter movement. Over the years, we've aimed to be sensitive and prioritize stories that highlight the intersection between racial and environmental injustice. From our years of covering the environment, we know that too often marginalized communities around the world are disproportionately affected by environmental crises.

Read More Show Less
Sockeye salmon are seen swimming at a fish farm. Natalie Fobes / Getty Images

By Peter Beech

Using waste food to farm insects as fish food and high-tech real-time water quality monitoring: innovations that could help change global aquaculture, were showcased at the World Economic Forum's Virtual Ocean Dialogues 2020.

Read More Show Less
Shanika Reaux walks through the devastated Lower Ninth Ward on May 10, 2006 in New Orleans, Louisiana, after her home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Mario Tama / Getty Images

The big three broadcast channels failed to cover the disproportionate impacts of extreme weather on low-income communities or communities of color during their primetime coverage of seven hurricanes and one tropical storm over three years, a Media Matters for America analysis revealed.

Read More Show Less
Several drugmakers and research institutions are working on vaccines, antivirals and other treatments to help people infected with COVID-19. krisanapong detraphiphat / Moment / Getty Images

Researchers at the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly announced yesterday that it will start a trial on a new drug designed specifically for COVID-19, a milestone in the race to stop the infectious disease, according to STAT News.

Read More Show Less
The Sumatran rhino is one of 515 endangered species of land animals on the brink of extinction. Mark Carwardine / Photolibrary / Getty Images

The sixth mass extinction is here, and it's speeding up.

Read More Show Less
People are having a hard time trying to understand what information is reliable and what information they can trust. Aekkarak Thongjiew / EyeEm / Getty Images

By Cathy Cassata

With more than 1.7 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States and more than 100,000 deaths from the virus, physicians face unprecedented challenges in their efforts to keep Americans safe.

They also encounter what some call an "infodemic," an outbreak of misinformation that's making it more difficult to treat patients.

Read More Show Less

Trending

Workers clean up a crude oil leak from a pipeline in Minnesota in 2002. JOEY MCLEISTER / Star Tribune via Getty Images

The Trump administration has finalized a rule making it harder for states and tribal communities to block pipelines and other infrastructure projects that threaten waterways.

Read More Show Less