WASHINGTON – New research from EWG and Northeastern University in Boston uncovered highly fluorinated toxic chemicals, known as PFCs or PFASs, in the drinking water of 15 million Americans in 27 states, and from more than four dozen industrial and military sources nationwide.
EWG and the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern collaborated to produce an interactive map that combines drinking water data from the Environmental Protection Agency and information on all publicly documented cases of PFC pollution from manufacturing plants, military air bases, civilian airports and fire fighter training sites.
“This is a one stop shop to track how pervasive the PFC contamination problem is in the U.S.,” said Bill Walker, co-author of the report and managing editor of EWG. “For the first time we’re reporting the full results of the EPA water testing, as well as known industrial spills and sites with military contamination, to provide a complete picture of where these PFCs are detected.”
Of the 47 locations where the source of the contamination is known or suspected, 21 sources are military bases, 20 are industrial facilities and seven are from civilian firefighting sites. Some locations have multiple sources of contamination.
“We were struck that PFASs are a ubiquitous global contaminant and have a multi-decade history of contamination episodes around the world,” said Phil Brown, director of the Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University. “The contamination tracking project is an effort to document and share how exactly PFAS contamination is discovered. Fundamentally, our work reveals the inadequacy of U.S. chemical regulation, and highlights the need for health-protective, precautionary chemical policy.”
In 2014, the institute received a grant by the National Science Foundation to study the social and scientific discovery of PFASs. As more communities were informed of the pervasive nature of these chemicals, residents, localities and states began actively testing for the compounds. Concerned residents and military communities were central to the scientific investigation.
But there is great concern that not enough is known about the sources or ubiquity of this pollution. The EPA’s limited unregulated chemical testing only covers water systems serving more than 10,000 people, and is only mandated to test 30 chemicals per three-year testing period. In other communities, like the village of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., drinking water tests commissioned by citizens found PFCs in the water. It is crucial to identify how these toxic chemicals continue to pollute the water.
“Americans should be outraged,” said David Andrews, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “As we uncover the pervasive pollution of drinking water, the chemical companies have already shifted production to a similar set of chemicals that are likely no better. Federal agencies have known for decades that this entire family of chemicals is toxic and they haven’t passed drinking water regulations. These chemicals do not break down in the environment and the amount of PFCs in your blood could be 100 times higher than the level of the chemical detected in your drinking water.”
The known extent of contamination of communities with PFCs linked to cancer, thyroid disease, weakened immunity and other health problems continues to expand with no end in sight.
“It’s remarkable that the richest country on Earth can’t guarantee its citizens that their drinking water is completely safe and has no long-term health implications,” said Walker.
The EPA has not added a new drinking water contaminant to the Safe Drinking Water Act in 25 years. The agency is stretched thin from a lack of resources and the chemical industry has fought against any regulations. The best chances for progress in setting limits for these chemicals in the short term are at the state level.
EWG previously reported that contamination of even very tiny concentrations of the Teflon chemical PFOA in drinking water poses a serious threat to public health. The average levels detected in each state are between five and 175 times too high to be considered safe. Even the lowest concentrations of PFOA tested in a study by the National Toxicology Program harmed animal fetuses.
In February, DuPont and its spinoff company Chemours agreed to pay $671 million to settle about 3,500 lawsuits from West Virginia and Ohio residents whose drinking water was poisoned by a cancer-causing chemical used to make Teflon. Although the settlement closes the most infamous case involving the chemical PFOA, its toxic legacy lingers worldwide.
The map, which will be updated as more contamination is discovered, is the most comprehensive resource available to track PFC pollution in the U.S. Its release coincides with a major PFAS conference June 14 and 15 at Northeastern which will bring together scientists, regulators, activists and others to examine a class of pollutants that contaminate water, soil, and the bodies of animals and people worldwide. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences awarded a grant to fund this international conference.
EWG is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment. Its mission is to empower people to live healthier lives in a healthier environment. Learn more at www.ewg.org.
The Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute at Northeastern University conducts research and training programs at the intersection of social sciences and life sciences. Learn more at www.northeastern.edu/environmentalhealth.