By: Althea Ocomen
The contamination of U.S. drinking water with man-made “forever chemicals” is far worse than previously estimated with some of the highest levels found in Miami, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, harming the citizens residing in that area. The chemicals, resistant to breaking down in the environment, are known as perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. Some have been linked to cancers, liver damage, low birth weight, and other health problems which may shorten the average lifespan of an adult. The findings by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) show the group's previous estimate in 2018, based on unpublished U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, that 110 million Americans may be contaminated with PFAS, could be far too low.
While those living adjacent to major manufacturers that use PFAS are more at danger, the products made from various PFAS chemicals are so ubiquitous—cleaning products, non-stick pans, rainproof coats, stain-resistant carpet, food packaging—that just about everyone has it in their bodies. Regular testing conducted by the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry found that it is present in nearly every blood sample they take.
PFAS, a class of more than 4,000 different chemicals, are everywhere. It shows up in everything from household items to fast-food wrappers. The chemicals were used in products like Teflon and Scotchguard and in firefighting foam and other materials. Some are used in a variety of other products and industrial processes, and their replacements also pose harm to its users. And new research published by the non-profit Environmental Working Group (EWG), shows it’s prevalent in tap water as well. PFAS has been used in commercial products ever since the 1940s. It is formed by joining carbon and fluorine, one of the strongest bonds that can be created in organic chemistry. It is that bond that’s at the root of why PFAS chemicals are used to make everyday items resistant to moisture, heat, and stains. Some of the most commonly used PFAS chemicals, like PFOS and PFOA (perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid) have long half-lives, earning them the nickname “the forever chemical.”
Firefighting foam can possibly contaminate soil and groundwater. Waste from PFAS manufacturing or from industrial facilities using PFAS or making products containing them can also contaminate the environment that you live in. Food packaging containing PFAS can potentially transmit PFAS to the food in the packaging, which will be eaten. The use of other products like carpeting, clothing, packaging materials containing PFAS, personal care products, and others can expose the skin to these dangerous chemicals. Working at a facility that produces PFAS or that makes products using these chemicals can also be a source of exposure and long-term harm.
In tap water samples taken by EWG from 44 sites in 31 states and Washington D.C., only one location, Meridian, Mississippi, which relies on 700 foot (215 m) deep wells, had no detectable PFAS. Only Seattle and Tuscaloosa, Alabama had levels below 1 part per trillion (PPT), the limit EWG recommends. “It’s nearly impossible to avoid contaminated drinking water from these chemicals,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at EWG and co-author of the report.
In addition, EWG found that on average six to seven PFAS compounds were found at the tested sites, and the effects on the health of the mixtures are still not quite fully understood. “Everyone’s really exposed to a toxic soup of these PFAS chemicals,” Andrews said. In 34 places where EWG’s tests identified PFAS, contamination had not been publicly reported by the EPA or state environmental agencies. The EPA has known since at least 2001 about the problem of PFAS in drinking water but has not done its duty to properly enforce and implement legislation that will address this conflict.
Chemicals found in tap water are currently being controlled by the Safe Drinking Water Act, which passed in 1974. However, a new chemical has not been placed to the list since 1996 because of an amendment that allowed the EPA, instead of Congress, to decide when to add a new chemical into its regulatory repertoire. The amendment also made it more difficult to prove that a chemical was irrefutably a human health threat. Last December 2019, the agency submitted PFOS and PFOA for internal review where its regulatory fate is still being further discussed and deliberated. To circumvent federal inaction, many states have enacted and implement their own limits on PFAS. Several companies have also pledged to remove known PFAS chemicals from their businesses.
Everyone needs to be aware of this problem in order to address the issue. We need to be knowledgeable about where these chemicals are made and used and in what products. We also need to identify how they are getting into the environment and how to stop that contamination. Innovation in science and technology can also greatly benefit the prevention of contamination. We need new laboratory equipment, and methods to find these chemicals in the water. We need to invest in innovations in drinking water treatment and clean-up technology. We need better information on effects on our health, on wildlife, and on overall environmental quality for healthy citizens. Lastly, producers of these chemicals need to be accountable for contamination, and for continuing to make and use these chemicals while withholding evidence of health risks. Costs of clean up should not be paid by taxpayers and consumers, but by those responsible for the contamination, such as businesses and corporations.
6/5/2021 10:16:39 pm
Wow, I never would have thought of that. Now, thanks to you, I know this information and how the impact on American water resources is going
It's interesting to know that the chemical in a firefighting foam, which is PFAS, can actually be found in most of out household items. I guess this means that we have access to such materials or products when needed for various purposes. And I think it should be available for putting out fires as well, because it seems like an effective material to control the flame coming from a source that is hard to put out.
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