CDC finds high levels of ‘forever chemical' PFHxS in blood

WASHINGTON – High levels of a “toxic forever” chemical used in firefighting foam have been found in the blood of residents of a West Virginia community near an Air National Guard base.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, or ATSDR, in a January 20 report detailed high levels of the chemical PFHxS in the blood of residents of Berkeley County, W.Va. The report also includes sampling results from household dust and tap water in the community.

The CDC and ATSDR found levels of PFHxS were higher than levels found in the blood of other Americans.

Shepherd Field Air National Guard Base in Berkeley County is among the most likely sources of PFHxS and other forever chemicals known as PFAS. But there are also 13 companies and at least one landfill in the area that are suspected dischargers of PFAS.

PFHxS is one of the most common types of PFAS found at military installations and has been known to be used in firefighting foams used at these sites.

“West Virginia is just a snapshot of the widespread problem of PFAS contamination plaguing communities across the United States,” said EWG Senior Vice President for Government Affairs Scott Faber. “Every time studies are released on PFAS, the scope of the problem becomes even clearer, and so does the harm to people who are exposed.”

California recently proposed a public health goal for PFOA, another type of PFAS, based on the incidence of kidney cancer associated with exposure.

The CDC and ATSDR started exposure studies near current and former military bases that used firefighting foams made with PFAS in 2019. Other studies are underway in communities in California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

In response to today’s findings, EWG urged West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) to work with her colleagues to pass the Senate’s version of the PFAS Action Act, which would set deadlines for the Environmental Protection Agency to take action on PFAS.

Capito led efforts to ensure that officials in Martinsburg, were able to install filters to reduce the amount of PFAS in the city’s drinking water. Capito has also led efforts to set a deadline for a national tap water standard for PFOA and PFOS and to add PFAS to a national toxic chemical reporting program.

PFAS are among the most persistent toxic compounds in existence, contaminating everything from drinking water to food, food packaging and personal care products. They are found in the blood of virtually everyone, including newborn babies. Very low doses of PFAS in drinking water have been linked to suppression of the immune system and are associated with an elevated risk of cancer, increased cholesterol, reproductive harms and other health concerns.

Thousands of communities have already detected these toxic forever chemicals in their water, and PFAS have been confirmed at nearly 400 military installations. EWG estimates that more than 200 million Americans are drinking water contaminated with PFAS.

“No one should have to worry about toxic forever chemicals in their tap water,” said Faber.

EPA Administrator Michael Regan has pledged to address PFOA and PFOS, two of the most notorious PFAS, in tap water, Faber said. “Although we’re glad this will begin to turn off the tap of industrial PFAS pollution, Congress must set deadlines for the EPA to act,” he added.

The EPA has known of the risks to communities posed by PFAS since at least 1998 but failed to act. A Biden EPA PFAS “roadmap” proposes to set a drinking water standard for PFOA and PFOS by 2023 and take steps to restrict industrial releases of PFAS into the air and water. The plan does not address setting a drinking water standard for PFHxS. 

“After more than two decades of delay, it’s good news EPA is finally starting to act. But we must move even faster to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution by industry,” Faber said. “Communities living downwind and downstream of these polluters have waited decades for action. Congress needs to set clear deadlines for the EPA to get PFAS out of our water.”

Faber also urged legislators to close loopholes that allow companies to hide releases from the public. EWG estimates up to 30,000 facilities may be discharging PFAS into the air and water.

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The Environmental Working Group is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization that empowers people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Through research, advocacy and unique education tools, EWG drives consumer choice and civic action.

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