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Part of a filtration system designed to filter out PFAS from the drinking water supply

Part of a filtration system designed to filter out PFAS from the drinking water supply is seen at the Horsham Water and Sewer Authority facility in Pennsylvania, on August 22, 2019. (Photo: Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nearly 42,000 Sources of Toxic 'Forever Chemicals' Put US Drinking Water at Risk: Study

"It is critical that the EPA start regulating PFAS—now," said one scientist.

Kenny Stancil

Bolstering calls for stronger PFAS regulations and more testing, a new analysis released Tuesday finds nearly 42,000 potential sources of toxic "forever chemicals" that could contaminate drinking water in communities throughout the United States.

"Every community in the U.S. is likely affected by PFAS contamination, but those living near or downstream from industrial facilities may be more at risk."

In their peer-reviewed study, which was published in a special issue of Water Science, Environmental Working Group (EWG) scientists examined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Enforcement and Compliance History Online database to identify potential sources of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) pollution in the nation's surface and drinking water.

According to their investigation, solid waste landfills, wastewater treatment plants, electroplaters and metal finishers, and petroleum refiners were the facilities that appeared most often as possible sources of PFAS contamination.

Dubbed "forever chemicals" because they don't break down and can persist in the environment and bioaccumulate over time, PFAS are a class of synthetic compounds that have been linked to adverse health outcomes, including a weakened immune system, reproductive and developmental harms, and an increased susceptibility to cancer, among other negative effects.

EWG researchers point out that discharges of PFAS with industrial wastewater are a major driver of surface and drinking water pollution—putting the health of tens of millions of Americans in jeopardy. Despite these risks, the paper notes, the vast majority of water systems nationwide lack both the technology and the funds to filter out forever chemicals.

"It is critical that the EPA start regulating PFAS—now," David Andrews, the lead author of the study and a senior scientist at EWG, said in a statement. "Every community in the U.S. is likely affected by PFAS contamination, but those living near or downstream from industrial facilities may be more at risk."

"Our investigation identifies a huge number of potential sources of contamination," Andrews continued. "It also provides a framework for deciding where and what to test so we can end releases into the environment."

The paper includes case studies of data available from California and Michigan, which show that PFAS pollution is common at a variety of sites, heightening the importance of widespread testing for forever chemicals in wastewater.

"We need to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from these industrial discharges, which affects more and more Americans every day."

"The results from states like Michigan show there is a wide variety of sources of PFAS in surface water," said Andrews. "Many landfills and industrial sites release PFAS at detectable concentrations that may exceed state limits or health guidelines for PFAS in water."

He added that "it is urgent that ongoing releases of PFAS be identified. We need to stop nonessential uses of PFAS and use filters to reduce these compounds from our water."

Getting forever chemicals out of the country's water supplies "remains a nationwide challenge," EWG stressed, "but it's one that can be met through comprehensive tests of surface water and drinking water, along with tests of wastewater from potential PFAS sources."

In July, the U.S. House passed the PFAS Action Act of 2021, which would improve the federal oversight and facilitate the cleanup of forever chemicals, but the U.S. Senate has yet to take up the legislation.

In the meantime, EWG implored the Biden administration to "use the EPA's powers to regulate as many industrial categories of PFAS discharges as possible," calling the agency's proposal to regulate just some releases of forever chemicals into the nation's drinking water inadequate "to end the pollution flowing from companies."

Scott Faber, EWG's senior vice president for government affairs, said that "we need to turn off the tap of PFAS pollution from these industrial discharges, which affects more and more Americans every day. That's the first step."

"The second step is for the EPA to set a national PFAS drinking water standard," said Farber. "And the third is to clean up legacy pollution."


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