Read the full article by Austin Fast, Cecilia Garzella, and Abraham Kenmore (USA Today)

“Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ have been found in more than one in four public drinking water systems this year in concentrations at or above the Environmental Protection Agency’s minimum reporting levels. 

That’s according to new EPA data released Thursday, showing hundreds of water systems have detected PFAS. Together, these systems provide drinking water to about 46 million people. 

Per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances, or PFAS, are a group of nearly indestructible chemicals that build up in the human body over time. They’ve been used widely for decades in nonstick and water-repellent household products, as well as industrial products. 

One system included in the EPA’s data for the first time is in Augusta, Georgia, which detected six distinct PFAS contaminants. With industrial manufacturing, a major military base and a downtown factory that makes fire-retardant bricks, Augusta has multiple PFAS sources.

‘There’s definitely things that do need to be improved, but there’s not, in our opinion, a health threat,’ said Wes Byne, Augusta’s director of utilities. ‘Depending on who you talk to, the industry has tried to consider this (detection level) like a drop of water in the Rose Bowl.’

However, most of the PFAS detections in Augusta were well above the minimum levels at which the EPA requires communities to report. Georgia does not have binding maximum contaminant levels for the chemicals, and there are currently no enforceable national drinking water standards for PFAS. The technology needed to remove and destroy forever chemicals is costly – a major barrier for local water systems. 

PFAS exposure has been linked to increased risk of cancer, as well as effects on the liver, immune system, cardiovascular system and human development, according to the EPA

‘When you look at that laundry list of health effects that have been linked to PFAS, it doesn’t mean you’re going to get that,’ said Courtney Carignan, an exposure scientist and environmental epidemiologist at Michigan State University. ‘Everyone’s risk factors are different. But you can reduce your risk by reducing your exposure and getting your drinking water tested.’

Map: Where the EPA found pollutants

This map shows water systems included in the EPA’s records, as of Nov. 9. It’s based on boundaries developed by SimpleLab, a water-testing company. Click on a system to see the number of pollutants detected at or above the EPA’s minimum reporting levels and how much the most concentrated pollutant exceeded those levels. If you don’t see a map, click here.

Of about 3,200 systems included so far, 854 measured at least one PFAS compound above the EPA’s reporting levels, according to a USA TODAY analysis of the data. That’s almost 27%, an increase from August’s update of the data

USA TODAY’s analysis shows the chemicals have turned up in nearly every state, affecting water systems large and small. 

Every five years, the EPA requires water systems to monitor for several unregulated pollutants. The current effort focuses on forever chemicals, and the EPA describes it as its most comprehensive PFAS monitoring initiative ever. Thursday’s data release represents a small portion of the additional sample results that the agency expects to collect and publish over the next few years from every large and mid-size public water system in America, as well as hundreds of small systems.  

‘I think the more testing that will be done, the more contaminated water systems will be uncovered,’ said Jamie DeWitt, director of the Environmental Health Sciences Center at Oregon State University. 

Many of the systems that have already detected PFAS provide water to over a million customers each, including Atlanta, Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix, Silver Spring, Maryland, San Jose, California, and Long Island, New York.   

The new data show WSSC Water, which serves nearly 2 million Marylanders just outside Washington, D.C., discovered in June two types of PFAS exceeding the EPA’s reporting levels.  

‘The health impacts of the two detected PFAS compounds, PFHxA and PFPeA, are currently unknown and they are not included in the EPA’s proposed regulation,’ wrote Lyn Riggins, WSSC Water spokesperson, in an emailed statement. ‘At this time, we have no information that suggests a concern related to these compounds.’

High costs hinder PFAS treatment upgrades

Riggins said WSSC Water would upgrade its treatment process to meet any new regulations on PFAS, but she added that the substantial cost of treatment upgrades should not be passed on to customers.  

‘We need to hold the entities causing PFAS to enter the environment financially responsible for removing their substances from water and wastewater,’ Riggins wrote, noting that WSSC Water recently filed a lawsuit against 20 companies, including 3M and Dupont. ‘We must hold the polluters accountable.’

Byne, the utilities director in Augusta, said they’ve been weighing the costs versus the benefits of various options, from blending contaminated water with PFAS-free water to relocating wells to multimillion-dollar advanced treatment upgrades. 

‘We’re trying to figure out, you know, what is the true risk? And then what does it mean for treatment in the long run?’ Byne said. 

Tonya Bonitatibus, a local riverkeeper and executive director for Savannah Riverkeeper, said residue from Augusta’s sewage treatment plant is also spread on farm fields as fertilizer. The wastewater treatment process doesn’t break down forever chemicals, leading to contaminated food crops and water supplies.  

‘Even today there isn’t any penalty for any of this,’ Bonitatibus said.”…