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A family of colorless and tasteless man-made chemicals — largely unregulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — has become a growing concern for drinking water safety in thousands of American communities, as scientists increasingly see links to liver damage, high cholesterol, weakened immune systems and cancer.
‘They basically fulfill the characteristics of a ticking time bomb,’ said Dr. Bo Guo, a University of Arizona hydrologist and expert on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which are commonly used in hundreds of consumer products and in firefighting foams, a top source of PFAS contamination.
‘They’re very dangerous and they’re migrating very slowly,’ Guo said of the heat-resistant chemicals.
While the health concerns around PFAS are not new, greater detection of the chemicals in water systems nationwide in recent years has begun to alarm state and local leaders and prompted Congress to consider urgent action.
Last month, the city of Tucson, Arizona, abruptly shut down a major water treatment facility that delivered drinking water to 60,000 residents because of a sudden surge in PFAS contamination that threatened to overwhelm groundwater filtration systems.
‘We don’t have enough confidence to go to drinking water supply at this time,’ said John Kmiec, interim director of Tucson Water. “We know that there’s this contamination out there. We don’t know exactly what it does, but we know it’s not going away.”
Some level of PFAS, widely known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they do not break down in the environment, have been found in water samples of 2,790 communities across 49 states, according to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an independent research and consumer watchdog organization pushing to limit exposure to chemicals through water, food and household products.
The contamination is likely much more widespread, experts said, because the EPA does not require testing for the chemicals and has not set a mandatory limit for how much PFAS are safe to drink in tap water.
‘It’s likely an issue in every community, and that’s why we need testing to find out,’ said Sydney Evans, an EWG water quality analyst who has conducted PFAS testing across the country.
In 2016, concerned by emerging health study data, the EPA issued an advisory to local water systems warning that prolonged exposure to the chemicals over 70 parts-per-trillion (ppt) may result in “adverse health effects.” The agency encouraged utilities to voluntarily monitor and filter to below that level, but does not enforce a standard.
President Joe Biden pledged during the 2020 campaign to accelerate the study and regulation of PFAS, but his EPA has yet to designate the class of substances as hazardous under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
There is growing momentum in Congress to pressure the agency over the issue. In a bipartisan vote last month, the House approved a bill that would force the EPA to establish mandatory national limits for PFAS in drinking water within two years, requiring more water systems to start filtering the chemicals out. The Senate’s pending bipartisan infrastructure bill would include billions to help communities get the job done.
‘The thing that gives me the greatest concern is not every community or every water company in the U.S. is actively testing for PFAS,’ said Kmiec. ‘So, there’s a lot of small to medium sized utilities that may have no idea if they even have a problem in their watershed.’
The chemicals have been detected on the shores of Michigan lakes, in the neighborhoods around old Naval Air Stations in Pennsylvania and even in the groundwater of a New Mexico dairy farm whose owner alleges in federal court documents that PFAS has poisoned the cows.
Water samples Evans collected and tested in March found elevated PFAS levels in the taps of some Virginia suburbs around the nation’s capital. A firefighting foam spill at a small regional airport is a suspected source of the contamination.
‘It’s in the backyard of the people who are working on these issues,’ Evans said.”…