Teflon Chemical Harmful at Smallest Doses

EPA's "Safe" Level is Hundreds or Thousands of Times Too Weak

August 20, 2015

Teflon Chemical Harmful at Smallest Doses: Nationwide water sampling

Nationwide sampling for PFOA, PFOS and four other PFCs17 in drinking water began in 2013, under an EPA program18 that periodically requires all U.S. public water systems serving 10,000 or more people to test for contaminants that are not yet regulated. Through July of this year, the current round of the program had tested more than 29,000 samples. Fewer than one percent of the samples had detectable levels of PFOA. But critics, including the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection and the American Water Works Association, said in comments to EPA that the tests were not designed to detect very low levels of the chemicals.19

In 2006 New Jersey conducted its own tests for PFOA and other PFCs in drinking water. The methods used by New Jersey officials were approximately 10 times the sensitivity of those specified by EPA. The less sensitive EPA tests and reporting threshold used for the nationwide sampling program would have missed almost three-fourths of the PFC water contamination New Jersey officials found in their state. New Jersey’s testing prompted state regulators to set their own non-enforceable health advisory level for PFOA in drinking water of 0.04 ppb – ten times more protective than EPA’s advisory level, but still more than 130 times the amount Grandjean and Clapp said is safe.

The results of the nationwide tests could mean that EPA will decline to propose an enforceable rule for PFOA in drinking water, because the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires that when the agency decides whether to issue a rule with the force of law, it must consider “the frequency and level of contaminant occurrence in public drinking water systems.”20 Yet the new research shows that the average of levels detected in each state are between five and 175 times too high to be considered safe.

The EPA-mandated tests by local water systems found PFOA in 27 states, in 94 water systems serving 6.5 million Americans. The results show that outside of the mid-Ohio Valley, New Jersey and California have the most widespread PFOA contamination. Testing in both states found PFOA in 14 water systems, serving more than 1.4 million people in California and more than 1.3 million people in New Jersey. By the most conservative estimate, the average level of PFOA detected in California samples was 14 times the level Grandjean and Clapp say is safe, and in New Jersey it was 30 times the new safe level.

The table below shows average levels of PFOA in water samples, and by how much they exceed the new safe level according to Grandjean and Clapp. EWG has also produced an interactive map  that shows nationwide detections of PFOA, PFOS and four other PFCs.

Table 2. Nationwide sampling found that statewide average detections of PFOA in drinking water greatly exceed the safe level established by the new research.

State Number of systems with water samples with PFOA Number of water samples with PFOA Percent of samples with PFOA detected Population served by drinking water systems with PFOAa Range of average level of PFOA in samples (parts per billion)b Average level of PFOA compared to safe level in new research
Alabama 12 26 25% 312,522 0.0081-0.0231 27-77X
Arizona 4 14 15% 217,218 0.006-0.0219 20-73X
California 14 39 14% 1,441,298 0.0041-0.035 14-117X
Colorado 3 52 78% 57,343 0.0361-0.0397 120-132X
Delaware 2 12 30% 320,494 0.0172-0.0269 57-90X
Florida 2 4 7% 371,913 0.0028-0.017 9-57X
Georgia 2 3 100% 94,674 0.0367 122X
Illinois 3 3 33% 135,753 0.0136-0.0209 45-70X
Kentucky 1 2 25% 730,611 0.005-0.0131 17-44X
Massachusetts 3 7 21% 103,762 0.0062-0.0168 21-56X
Maryland 1 1 10% 104,567 0.0021-0.012 7-40X
Minnesota 4 6 26% 143,637 0.0256-0.0346 85-115X
North Carolina 5 8 9% 225,262 0.002-0.0192 7-64X
New Hampshire 2 2 17% 53,000 0.0091-0.0184 30-61X
New Jersey 14 60 33% 1,334,413 0.0091-0.0272 30-91X
New York 3 4 8% 174,000 0.0028-0.0163 9-54X
Ohio 3 3 33% 79,337 0.008-0.0153 27-51X
Oklahoma 1 1 33% 20,307 0.0113-0.0182 38-61X
Pennsylvania 5 24 25% 221,121 0.0193-0.0337 64-112X
Rhode Island 1 1 25% 21,900 0.0203-0.0281 68-94X
South Carolina 1 1 25% 24,904 0.006-0.0138 20-46X
Tennessee 1 1 25% 139,110 0.005-0.0128 17-43X
Texas 1 1 25% 11,489 0.0066-0.0144 22-48X
Virginia 1 1 7% 47,574 0.0016-0.0122 5-41X
Washington 3 6 23% 109,527 0.0067-0.0163 22-54X
Wisconsin 1 3 21% 30,100 0.0063-0.0153 21-51X
West Virginia 1 2 100% 34,251 0.0522 174X
Total 94 287 23% 6,560,087    

Sources: EWG, from Grandjean and Clapp 2015; EPA 2009, 2015; Bilott to EPA 2015.

a From the EPA Safe Drinking Water Information System 2013 Inventory.

b EPA only required reporting of PFOA levels above 0.02 ppb, even if the laboratories testing the samples had lower limits of detection. The average PFOA values for each state are provided as a range, calculated using zero and 0.02 ppb as the value for all non-detects.

17 PFBS, PFHpA, PFHxS and PFNA. PFOS, the only other PFC for which EPA has set a Provisional Health Advisory level – 0.2 ppb, half that of PFOA – was detected in 234 samples from 87 water systems.

18 The Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Rule.

19 U.S. EPA, Revisions to the Unregulated Contaminant Monitoring Regulations (UCMR) for Public Water Systems. Comments from American Water Works Association, Fluorocouncil and New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection. Docket ID: EPA-HQ-OW-2009-0090.

20 U.S. EPA, Regulating Public Water Systems and Contaminants Under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Available: water.epa.gov/lawsregs/rulesregs/regulatingcontaminants/basicinformation.cfm