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Drinking Water Crisis Update: Supplies in 43 States Found Contaminated With Harmful PFAS Chemicals

Health + Wellness
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Millions of people across the U.S. have been exposed to toxic PFAS chemicals in their drinking water, according to a new report from Northeastern University and the Environmental Working Group.


The report found that at least 610 sites in 43 states were contaminated with the fluorinated compounds known as PFAS chemicals as of March 2019, including the drinking water systems for around 19 million people. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to PFAS chemicals can lead to increased risk of cancer as well as immune, behavioral and reproductive health issues.

The nonprofit Environmental Working Group and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University used information from the Pentagon and water utilities to update an interactive map detailing the spread of the contamination. The Environmental Working Group said that when the map was last updated in July 2018, there were 172 locations in 40 states showing PFAS contamination.

Based on the new data, Michigan tops the list of states with the most contaminated sites on the map with 192, followed by California with 47 and New Jersey with 43. PFAS contamination was found at 117 military bases across the country, due to use in aviation-grade firefighting foam. The U.S Department of Defense officials estimate that it will cost $2 billion to clean up the contamination at all bases in the U.S., Military Times reported.

"This should be frightening to all Americans in many ways," David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, told CBS News. "These chemicals ... don't break down in our body and they don't break down in our environment and they actually stick to our blood. So levels tend to increase over time."

PFAS chemicals have been manufactured since the 1940s and are used in a wide range of consumer products, including cosmetics, paint, adhesives, food packaging, furniture and cleaning products, as well as water, oil and grease repellants, HuffPost reported. Because they take thousands of years to break down, PFAS chemicals easily find their way into drinking water, lakes and rivers, and wildlife. The CDC says that basically everyone in the U.S. have some level of PFAS chemicals in their blood, usually due to consuming contaminated water or food.

Currently, there are no enforceable federal limits for PFAS chemicals in drinking water, but the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does have a non-binding health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion, the Daily Mail reported. For the report, the Environmental Working Group included all locations where PFAS were found, even if the concentration was less than the health advisory level. The organization has proposed a 1 part per trillion limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water.

"The Environmental Protection Agency has utterly failed to address PFAS with the seriousness this crisis demands, leaving local communities and states to grapple with a complex problem rooted in the failure of the federal chemical regulatory system," said Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook, president of EWG, in a press release.

The EPA has recently hinted at establishing a national limit for PFAS chemicals in drinking water and released draft guidance for cleaning PFAS contamination in groundwater, while legislators have introduced more than 15 bills so far this year with bipartisan support to require action on PFAS pollution.

The EPA said it had not fully reviewed the latest data from the Environmental Working Group and, for now, is sticking by its existing PFAS action plan.

"EPA is moving forward with the maximum contaminant level (MCL) process outlined in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for PFOA and PFOS," the agency said in a statement to CBS. "The process prescribed by the Act ensures scientific integrity and transparency when developing regulations for contaminants in public water systems."

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