Quantcast
Health
Mark Doliner / CC BY-SA 2.0

110 Million Americans May Be Drinking PFAS-Contaminated Water

More than 1,500 drinking water systems across the country may be contaminated with the nonstick chemicals PFOA and PFOS, and similar fluorine-based chemicals, a new EWG analysis shows. This groundbreaking finding comes the same day the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is convening a summit to address PFAS chemicals—a class of toxic chemicals that includes PFOA and PFOS, and that are linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity and other health problems.


From 2013 to 2015, the EPA mandated national testing for PFAS chemicals in public water systems, yet the full results of this testing, funded by taxpayers, were never made public. Water utilities with the highest concentrations of PFAS chemicals have been publicly identified. But the names of utilities with detectable PFAS contamination below the so-called reporting levels of 10 to 90 parts per trillion, or ppt, were not released. Millions of people were not informed that their water supply is contaminated with these chemicals.

The additional water systems with PFAS contamination likely serve tens of millions of people, and it is essential for people in those communities to be informed of this hazard. Eurofins Eaton Analytical, which analyzed a third of the nationwide water samples, found that 28 percent of the water utilities it tested contained PFAS chemicals at concentrations at or above 5 ppt. The percentage of samples with PFAS detections nearly doubled when the laboratory analyzed down to 2.5 ppt. Based on this data, EWG's analysis suggests that up to 110 million Americans could have PFAS in their water.

This new research greatly exceeds EWG's previous estimate of 16 million Americans being exposed to PFAS-contaminated water, as reported in the EWG's national Tap Water Database.

Independent scientific assessments find that the safe level of exposure to PFAS chemicals is about 1 ppt—significantly below the reporting level set by the EPA.

Just over a week ago, InsideEPA and Politico broke news that the White House and the EPA attempted to bury a proposal from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry that suggested exposure to Teflon and Scotchgard chemicals may be harmful at levels 10 times lower than what the EPA has publicly called safe. The full ATSDR proposal has not been made public, but the available information indicates the lower level was proposed because ATSDR accounted for harm to the immune system. This mirrors the more health protective approach New Jersey took in drafting its drinking water limits of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA.

The full implications a lower safe exposure level would have are uncertain because the extent of national drinking water contamination is unknown. The uncertainty is largely due to the reporting value the EPA has previously used. PFAS detections below the reporting limits were kept secret, and may have never been recorded.

Today's EPA summit on the PFAS contamination crisis carries no indication that the agency will take action. In fact, the public might expect the opposite result, given internal EPA emails showing that top aides to Administrator Scott Pruitt and White House officials attempted to suppress the ATSDR proposal, worrying that release of the study would be "a public relations nightmare" for the Trump administration.

EWG calls on the EPA, testing laboratories and drinking water utilities across that country that have PFAS testing results to make the information public immediately. Knowing the locations and extent of contamination is critical for cleaning up water supplies and making the case for regulation.

Secret PFAS Contamination Data

In the water testing mandated by the EPA under the third Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule, or UCMR, 198 different water utilities had recorded detections of PFAS chemicals in amounts above the EPA reporting limit. But the reporting limits were very high, using 40 ppt for PFOS and 20 ppt for PFOA, though many labs have much more sensitive detection limits. Some analytical labs are able to detect amounts as small 2 ppt of PFAS chemicals in water.

Based on a reanalysis of the national dataset by Eurofins Eaton Analytical, a water testing lab that processed more than 30 percent of nationwide water samples, EWG estimated how many utilities would likely have contaminated water if the reporting values had been set lower. At a reporting limit of 5 ppt, an estimated 1,046 utilities could have tested positive. If all results down to 2.5 ppt were reported, we estimate that over 1,900 of the 4,920 water utilities tested in the U.S. would have reported contamination.

Using maps generated by Eurofins Eaton Analytical and the public UCMR results, we calculated the number of water utilities that the lab identified as having PFOA or PFOS in their water, without results being reported to the EPA. Some states such as New Jersey have done additional water testing and have likely identified some, if not all, of the utilities that have PFAS chemicals in their water.

The PFAS water contamination issue is not going away and the EPA needs to take immediate action to both understand the full extent of contamination and ensure Americans have safe drinking water.

EWG Methodology for Estimating Number of Public Water Systems With Possible PFAS Contamination

In Eurofins Eaton Analytical presentations in 2017, the laboratory indicated that it had analyzed water samples from 1,800 water utilities and had measured PFAS concentrations that were much lower than those reported by the EPA. The lab reported 5.3 percent of water samples tested positive for PFAS chemicals at the UCMR limits, compared to 4.02 percent of samples from all laboratories that analyzed UCMR samples. Eurofins Eaton Analytical also found that 28 percent of all water systems had PFAS levels above 5 ppt, and 42 percent of all water samples had PFAS chemical concentrations at or above 2.5 ppt.

Based on the sensitive results from Eurofins Eaton Analytical, we estimated the number of American water systems with PFAS levels at or above 2.5 and 5 ppt. To calculate the number of utilities estimated to have detections at 5 ppt, we used the ratio of detections between Eurofins lab at UCMR levels and at 5 ppt compared with the overall detection ratio for all labs at UCMR levels. We estimate that 21.3 percent of water utilities in the UCMR program would likely have PFAS detections at 5 ppt or higher, and the detection frequency approximately doubles when comparing levels of 5 ppt and 2.5 ppt.

If 39 percent of the U.S. population was exposed to PFAS chemicals, this would represent approximately 127 million people, and 39 percent of the population served by water systems tested in the UCMR program would represent approximately 90 million people.

An alternative way to estimate the number of people affected by PFAS contamination is to compare the ratio of the 4 percent of utilities that tested positive in the UCMR program, representing 16 million people, to our estimate of 39 percent of water systems that have PFAS levels of 2.5 ppt or greater. This yields an estimate of 117 million people with PFAS in their water at levels at or above 2.5 ppt.

On average, these three estimates indicate that 110 million people could have PFAS chemicals in their water at levels of 2.5 ppt or higher.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Popular
Sit-in at Rep. Hoyer's office. Sunrise Movement

1,000+ Youth Activists Storm Capitol to Demand Green New Deal

More than 1,000 climate activists with the youth-led Sunrise Movement stormed the U.S. Capitol in Washington and participated in sit-ins at Democratic leaders' offices on Monday.

The protesters demanded Reps. Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer and Jim McGovern support Rep-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's proposal of a "select committee" for a Green New Deal before the winter recess.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
The Stikine River runs through Wrangell, Alaska. Mining operations nearby threaten to poison fish in the Stikine watershed and destroy the traditions and livelihoods of Southeast Alaskan Tribes. Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Canada as Ugly Neighbor: Mines in BC Would Devastate Alaskan Tribes

By Ramin Pejan

Mining operations in Canada are threatening to destroy the way of life of Southeast Alaskan Tribes who were never consulted about the mines by the governments of Canada or British Columbia.

Keep reading... Show less
Business
Deforestation on peatland for palm oil plantation in Borneo, Indonesia. glennhurowitz / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

World's Largest Palm Oil Trader Ramps Up Zero-Deforestation Efforts

The world's largest palm oil trader released plans on Monday to increase its efforts to eliminate deforestation from its supply chain.

Wilmar International, which supplies 40 percent of the world's palm oil, has teamed up with the sustainability consultancy Aidenvironment Asia to develop a comprehensive mapping database to better monitor the company's palm oil supplier group.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular
The Elkhorn Slough Reserve is one of California's few remaining coastal wetlands. Edmund Lowe Photography / Moment / Getty Images

New EPA Rule Would Sabotage Clean Water Act

By Jake Johnson

In a move environmentalists are warning will seriously endanger drinking water and wildlife nationwide, President Donald Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reportedly gearing up to hand yet another gift to big polluters by drastically curtailing the number of waterways and wetlands protected under the Clean Water Act.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
James Braund / Getty Images

40 Acres of Farm Land in America Is Lost to Development Every Hour

By Brian Barth

Picture bulldozers plowing up pastures and cornfields to put in subdivisions and strip malls. Add to this picture the fact that the average age of the American farmer is nearly 60—it's often retiring farmers that sell to real estate developers. They can afford to pay much more for property than aspiring young farmers.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy

60,000 Liters of Oil Spills From Pipeline Into Brazilian Bay

About 60,000 liters (15,850 gallons) of oil spilled from a pipeline into the Estrela River and spread to Rio de Janeiro's famed Guanabara Bay over the weekend, according to Reuters and local reports.

The pipeline is owned by Transpetro, the largest oil and gas transportation company in Brazil, and a subsidiary of Petroleo Brasileiro (commonly known as Petrobras). Transpetro claims the leak resulted from an attempted robbery.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
alvarez / E+ / Getty Images

Holiday Shoppers, the Planet Needs You to Take It Easy With Next-Day Shipping

By Jeff Turrentine

Back in 1966, the editors of Time indulged in a long-honored magazine tradition and published an essay in which experts made predictions about the future—in this case, the year 2000. By then, these experts prognosticated, a typical shopper "should be able to switch on to the local supermarket on the video phone, examine grapefruit and price them, all without stirring from her living room." But even so, they predicted, "remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop." Why? Because shoppers "like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds."

Keep reading... Show less
Climate
The Russia pavilion at the COP24 conference in Katowice, Poland. Beata Zawrzel / NurPhoto via Getty Images

COP24: U.S. Joins Saudi Arabia, Russia and Kuwait in Blocking Crucial Climate Report

The U.S. has thrown its hat in the ring with three other fossil-fuel friendly nations to block the COP24 talks from "welcoming" the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that warned that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 45 percent of 2010 levels by 2030 in order to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, BBC News reported.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!