Study: Removal of ‘Forever Chemicals’ From Drinking Water Poses Severe and Costly Challenges to Local Communities

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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

WASHINGTON – Removal of the toxic fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS from drinking water costs local communities millions of dollars, says a new Environmental Working Group study, published today in the European water industry journal Water Solutions. The study documented the severe threat PFAS poses to drinking water safety, emphasizing that preventing ongoing discharges of PFAS is key to protecting public health.

“This research reveals that escaping PFAS pollution is nearly impossible,” said Olga Naidenko, Ph.D., EWG vice president for science investigations. “Communities across the world are bearing the burden of removing these toxic chemicals from their drinking water. This crisis calls for immediate action to ensure that all people have safe water.”

In the U.S., PFAS contamination has been documented at over 1,400 locations in 49 states. Given the widespread nature of PFAS contamination in the environment and the myriad ways PFAS chemicals enter surface and ground water, these contaminants likely affect drinking water worldwide.

As the full scope of contamination is revealed, numerous communities are removing PFAS from their drinking water with granular activated carbon, ion exchange or reverse osmosis filtration systems. The EWG study cites examples of the steep costs facing communities to make their water safe. Brunswick County, N.C., one of the hardest-hit communities, faces an estimated $137 million cost for reverse osmosis upgrades to a water treatment plant.

Tests commissioned by EWG have found toxic PFAS chemicals in the drinking water of dozens of U.S. cities, including major metropolitan areas. Some of the highest PFAS levels detected were in samples from cities including Miami, Philadelphia, New Orleans and the northern New Jersey suburbs of New York City.

EWG’s tap water samples were analyzed for the presence of 30 different PFAS compounds, including chemicals from the PFAS family that are not commonly tested for in drinking water, by an accredited independent laboratory. EWG’s tests found that on average, six or seven different PFAS chemicals were detected in samples.

“These 'short-chain' PFAS chemicals, touted by the chemical industry as safer alternatives, exhibit toxic effects similar to the ‘long-chain’ chemicals they’re meant to replace,” said Tasha Stoiber, Ph.D., a senior scientist at EWG. “Short-chain PFAS are also harder to remove from drinking water.”

In December, the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union agreed to set a legally binding drinking water limit for PFAS detected in drinking water. After EWG’s test results were published in January, Water Solutions invited EWG to submit the paper published today.

Communities whose water supplies are contaminated by industrial waste discharges from fluorochemical production and PFAS-based firefighting foam are struggling with the economic and health costs of contaminated drinking water. To address this crisis, it is essential to stop industrial discharges and to implement a transition to non-PFAS-based firefighting technologies.

In April, EWG updated a map with thousands of industrial facilities likely discharging the toxic forever chemicals into the air and water in the U.S. In addition to PFAS presence in the wastewater effluent, PFAS also end up in biosolids, or treated wastewater sludge, which are applied to agricultural fields. PFAS contamination of the soil acts as a source of PFAS in food crops.

PFAS chemicals are typically present in complex mixtures within consumer products and the environment. In addition to elevated risk of cancer, exposure to PFAS chemicals is also linked to other serious health concerns, including reproductive and developmental harms, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines.

In January, EWG researchers published a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health that found the most well-studied PFAS compounds – PFOA, formerly used by DuPont to make Teflon, and PFOS, formerly an ingredient in 3M’s Scotchgard – exhibited up to five key carcinogenic characteristics.   

The Environmental Protection Agency has failed to set a national legal limit for PFAS in drinking water under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Several states, including New Jersey, have taken steps to set health-protective drinking water limits for some PFAS.

In January, the House voted to pass H.R. 535, the PFAS Action Act. H.R. 535 will immediately designate PFOA and PFOS as hazardous substances, which will kickstart the clean-up process at contaminated sites. H.R. 535 will also set a two-year deadline for EPA to establish a drinking water standard, and set deadlines for EPA to finally restrict PFAS releases 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.