Nearly half of the tap water in the United States is contaminated with toxic “forever chemicals,” according to a new study from the US Geological Survey. The study found that at least one of the 32 tested per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals were detected in 45% of the drinking water samples in the US. However, the actual number of people drinking contaminated water may be even higher than what the study found.
What are “Forever Chemicals”?
PFAS are a family of synthetic chemicals that are used in many consumer products, such as carpets, clothes, food packaging, and non-stick cookware. The chemicals do not break down easily in the environment, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.” PFAS exposure is linked to a range of health problems, including cancer, obesity, thyroid disease, high cholesterol, decreased fertility, liver damage, and hormone suppression.
The Risks of Exposure to PFAS
Most people in the United States have been exposed to some PFAS, and some may be at higher risk, such as industrial workers involved in making PFAS and people who live near those facilities. The new study shows that the highest concentrations of PFAS in drinking water were found in the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Eastern Seaboard, and Central/Southern California. PFAS exposure is linked to several health problems, and it can be difficult to specify the health effects since people may be exposed in different ways and at different stages of development.
Where PFAS Concentrations are Higher
The new study is the most comprehensive to date that includes both private wells and public water sources. The contamination was mostly found near urban areas and in areas that generated PFAS, such as manufacturing that uses the chemicals in its products or sites where waste was collected. PFAS can be found in many places, including food, clothing, dust, and rainwater.
Checking for PFAS in Water
It’s important for people to understand their risk of exposure to tap water. Water filters may help somewhat if tap water is contaminated, and there are moves to regulate some PFAS chemicals in US drinking water. The EPA has proposed the first national drinking water standards for six PFAS chemicals. The proposed limits set the allowable levels for these chemicals so low that they could not be easily detected. Households can also use reverse osmosis filtering systems, but those can be expensive. Carbon filters can help, but they have to be changed regularly.
Cleaning Up PFAS: A Costly Challenge
Cleaning up PFAS from drinking water is going to be a costly challenge. These chemicals carry real health consequences, and people can’t exactly avoid drinking water. There’s ongoing research to determine how different levels of exposure to PFAS chemicals might lead to various health effects. The EPA issued health advisories in June 2022 that said the chemicals are much more hazardous to human health than previously thought. The standards are expected to help the water systems determine whether levels of these PFAS pose a potential risk. They may also need to install treatment or take other actions, and may even need to switch to different water sources.
In conclusion, PFAS chemicals are a serious threat to human health, and it’s important to take steps to reduce exposure to these chemicals. People can check their local utility website to get its most recent water report and determine their risk of exposure. Carbon filters and reverse osmosis filtering systems can be used to reduce exposure, but they have to be changed regularly. Cleaning up PFAS from drinking water is going to be a costly challenge, but it’s necessary to protect public health.