On military bases and in cities and towns around the country, people are exposed to dangerously high levels of artificially produced PFAS chemicals.
- A class of industrially produced chemicals called PFAS are found in many products, including cosmetics, fire-retardant foams, and food packaging.
- Almost everyone in the industrialized world has some of these so-called "forever chemicals" in their blood.
- Scientific evidence suggests they could be linked with cancer and other serious health issues.
- More than 30 communities across the US, and dozens more military bases, have water sources that are contaminated with dangerously high levels of PFAS chemicals.
In the US, consumers usually assume that the water coming out of our taps has been thoroughly tested and is safe to drink.
But residents in more than 30 communities around the country have found out that’s not the case.
In states including Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and North Carolina, local water systems have been contaminated with toxic chemicals called PFAS, which stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances.
The chemicals are a problem on military bases too: a March 2018 report from the Department of Defense revealed at least 90 Air Force, Army, and Navy bases have groundwater levels of the chemicals higher than what's considered safe by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"We should all be angry that those who are willing to pay the ultimate price for our country have to worry about exposure to toxic chemicals," Rep. Harley Rouda (D-CA) said Wednesday morning during a US House hearing titled "Examining PFAS Chemicals and their Risks."
The class of artificial lab-grown chemicals doesn't break down in the environment and instead remains intact in water, air, and bodies for thousands of years, according to the Associated Press. For that reason, they've become known as "forever chemicals."
PFAS concentrations can build up quickly in the environment, and people or animals who consume too much of these chemicals can suffer potentially life-threatening consequences.
PFAS can both be attracted to and repelled by water — two opposite tasks — which makes them a unique class of industrially useful chemicals. The compounds have been found in items like cosmetics, non-stick pans, firefighting foams, products such as Teflon and Scotchgard, and some food packaging like pizza boxes and microwave-popcorn bags.
What PFAS chemicals can do to your body
Scientists who study the concentrations of PFAS in our blood agree that it's almost impossible to avoid exposure to the toxic chemicals. One common way we come into contact with PFAS is when they end up in the water supply. Waste that's dumped from chemical manufacturing plants can contaminate groundwater, or PFAS can enter lakes and other freshwater sources after firefighting foam gets used.
In humans, the buildup of PFAS chemicals has been linked to a host of health conditions, including:
- low birth weights
- liver damage
- high cholesterol
- chronic kidney disease
- attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and immunization resistance in children
- early menopause
- colon ulcers
The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) both think PFAS may also cause cancer, since people with higher-than-average exposures to the chemicals have increased rates of testicular and kidney cancers. But that link hasn't been demonstrated for sure.
According to the EPA, people shouldn’t be exposed to a concentration of PFAS higher than 70 parts per trillion (ppt). But a draft report from the US Department of Health and Human Services suggests that threshold may still be far too high. Other states put the safe drinking threshold much lower when they test for the five most ubiquitous PFAS chemicals.
"If your water has been tested and the total sum of the five PFAS is more than 20 ppt, we recommend not using your water for drinking, food preparation, cooking, brushing teeth, preparing baby formula, or any other manner of ingestion," Vermont's state health website advises. The contaminated water shouldn’t even be used to quench your garden, it says, because the PFAS could be absorbed into vegetables you eat.
A cross-country water crisis
Eight big companies, including 3M and DuPont, phased out the chemicals from their products and plants in 2015.
But much of the damage has already been done. It can take upwards of two to nine years for concentrations of these chemicals in your body to be cut in half. Some just never go away.
3M, one of the first companies to use PFAS chemicals, settled an eight-year-long lawsuit with the State of Minnesota in 2018 for $850 million. The state alleged the company knew it was dumping toxic chemicals into waters around the Twin Cities for decades, but hid and distorted the scientific evidence from regulators.
In July 2018, Michigan declared a state of emergency in Kalamazoo County because PFAS levels in the water supplies in Parchment and Cooper Townships were 20 times higher than what the EPA considers safe. That’s one of 34 spots across that state where PFAS levels were shown to be too high.
Factory workers and people from the Mid-Ohio Valley have some of the highest PFAS exposure levels in the country. But everyone has at least some in their system. Researchers from Harvard estimated in 2016 that at least 6 million Americans — nearly 2% of the population — were drinking water with PFAS levels higher than what the EPA recommends.
As one 2018 study in the journal Environmental Research said, "although use in the US has been phased out, PFOA persists indefinitely in the environment, and is present in the serum of virtually all people in industrialized countries."
Plus, PFAS chemicals are still used in products made in other places around the world, and can be imported in many items, including carpets, rubbers, plastics, and fabrics.
What regulators are doing about the PFAS problem
Last year, a bipartisan group of Senators from states where PFAS have been found in the water introduced two bills aimed at getting the chemicals out of drinking, surface, and ground water around the US. But so far, the EPA has only issued a non-binding recommendation that water utilities limit concentrations of PFAS chemicals no higher than 70 parts per trillion.
"There is so much we do not know, and it is imperative that we get answers soon," Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) who's sponsoring both bills, said in a release.
The first bill would set aside $45 million in funding over the next five years for the US Geological Survey (USGS) to develop better technology to test for PFAS and conduct sampling around the country. The second would help states clean up contaminated water that comes from federal lands, including on and around the military bases where firefighting foams with PFAS were used for training and leeched into water.
To hear directly from people whose drinking waters have been contaminated with PFAS, the EPA embarked on a cross-country listening tour last year. Agency representatives stopped in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Washington, Kansas and North Carolina to learn about how to help local utilities manage and clean up toxic water.
At one such hearing in Warminster, Pennsylvania in July, water and sewer manager Tim Hagey told the Associated Press that he used to assure people that drinking his town’s water was worry-free. But no more.
"You all made me out to be a liar," Hagey reportedly told EPA officials.
In the hopes of lowering PFAS concentrations, some cities have started using activated-charcoal filtration systems and reverse osmosis. Others may shift where the municipal water is sourced from.
If you're worried about your own drinking water, you can check the EPA's annual drinking-water report online or look at an independent tap-water database from the Environmental Working Group. You can also use an NSF/ANSI-approved filter at home.
Update: This story was originally published August 27, 2018, and has been updated with the latest news on PFAS chemicals.